yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Risk Assessment

The elephant back trail
The view from the Elephant Back Trail.

Hold on to your hats, kiddos! This is a long one!

I was always really interested in risk assessment in grad school. I even wrote a paper on it soon after Hurricane Katrina because I was interested in why– in the face of massive destruction, environmental pollution, lack of infrastructure, and an increase in violent crime– would someone decide to return to New Orleans. The concept basically boils down to how people evaluate and react to the wide variety of risks they’re faced with every day. There’s obviously a lot of psychology involved and risk assessment changes depending on the situation or if it’s just you taking it or if others are involved. To sounds kind of bland but I promise, it’s really quite interesting. And for better or worse, the insurance industry is based on risk assessment–that’s how they figure out your rates–so it’s even a bigger part of our lives than we give it credit for.

Well, my hike today got me pondering risk once again. It was my first Yellowstone hike of the year which is always a near death experience for me. Going from being nearly at sea level to 8,000 + feet above sea level is never a problem until I hit the trail. That, in and of itself, is risky. But I was also hiking in a bear hot-spot without bear spray (it will be issued to me in two days so don’t fret) and I had my knife in my backpack–lot of good that’ll do me when I’m being devoured. Then there was the mix of high winds and shallow-rooted trees. I should have turned around when I heard the whistling wind and saw the white caps on the lake but I wanted to be out so darn badly.

bear closing

My hike, besides being breathless, was fantastic. The Elephant Back Trail is always my first hike. It’s moderately strenuous, with great views and is close to the dorm so I don’t have to drive…because I’m obviously sick of driving at this point. It’s a well used trail so I wasn’t too worried about surprising a bear but it was certainly a possibility. My biggest concern was the wind blowing through the trees. As soon as I thought that maybe this could be a problem, a tree came down not too far from where I was standing. I’ve heard plenty of trees falling but never have I seen one. To make matters worse, Stairway to Heaven was playing on my Pandora which could have been a death omen in this situation. Still, I pressed on.

The view from the top was glorious, minus the family having a huge, uncomfortable fight right there. The devious mother decided to drag me and another onlooker into the situation by saying to the kid, in the most passive aggressive tone (You know, the one where someone uses the sweetest voice to mask the horrifyingly rude words coming out of their mouth?), “Now that we’re here, I want to take this opportunity to scold you for your bad behavior in front of these two nice strangers. You’re lucky that there aren’t more people here because you’d be even more embarrassed. You should be apologizing to them.” We had no idea what she was talking about and her public shaming attempt completely backfired. What two strangers thought of him rightfully had no impact. He just walked away and muttered something under his breath, which made her come completely undone. I must say, I loved it a little bit. When are kids going to learn that the walk-away-barely-audible-mutter is never wise? Nothing good ever comes of it. And this is when I thought to myself, parenthood is the biggest risk of them all. Either you go into it a complete, miserable, monster bitch or it turns you into one, just like that mother. The risk is potentially becoming that and you never really know if that’s how you’ll turn out until it’s too late.


On my hike back down, I met up with a breathless gentleman who seemed eager to stop and talk for a second. I warned him to watch out for falling trees and he mentioned to me that a tourist was crushed to death just a few days ago by one. Egats! That’s the worst example of standing in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time but these viciously random acts do happen. People worry about bear attacks but they never consider that they’re more likely to die from a car accident, a tree falling or even a drowning in the park.

This brings me to thinking about the dangers of my job. I cannot even explain to you how extremely perilous it is but I’ll try. This is not to boast, this is to demonstrate the lengths that some people with go to collect data. And it is also to show that even though I may post some pretty pictures and I’m working in one of the most beautiful places on earth, it’s not easy. Sure, it’s not the Deadliest Catch but some days it feels too darn close for comfort. Okay, mother, please stop reading now.

For all those field biologists working in a park like Yellowstone, your health & safety risk increases exponentially because of the increased time spent outside in the elements. More time means more exposure to all things unpleasant and deadly which includes being attacked by bear, bison, elk, wolves, bobcat, mountain lion or moose; lightning strikes; falling trees; drowning; car accidents; falling into a thermal area and boiling to death; being shot; hypothermia and my favorite, being impaled. I’m definitely forgetting some others. You wouldn’t believe the kick we get out of reading or hearing the statistics for the likelihood of being mauled by an animal or having a tree fall on us in the park. There’s a world of difference between working in the backcountry and sauntering around the boardwalk at Old Faithful and the stats by no means account for this discrepancy.

I’ve had one semi close call with a bear, many not-so-awesome falls, many minor impalements, tons of bison surprises and one venture into a thermal area that was solid ground the previous year. Moreover, my field partner last year fell while navigating over a downed tree and sliced himself open all the way from his groin to his knee. And a fellow crew member was nearly attacked by a wolf a few years ago. She even has pictures of the incident. She was surveying a wetland and the wolf came up behind her. She was delighted at first, snapped a few photos and then the wolf just kept creeping closer and closer. At first its body language seemed inquisitive and then it turned predatory, like it was about to lunge at her. That is the only time she had to use her bear spray in all her years working here. After the bear spray wore off it came back at her, she sprayed it again and got the heck out of there. Come to find out, a prominent wildlife photographer had been illegally baiting animals in order to get close-ups, thus creating a wild animal that was no longer afraid of people. The wolf was euthanized a few weeks later when it attacked someone. It’s an unfortunate incident that gets all of our haunches up.

In the face of all that though, it’s the seemingly minor, often overlooked things that scare me the most because statistically they’re what will lead to the field biologist’s demise in a place such as this. Trees falling is a prominent concern but for what I do, stabbing is at the top of the list. This is how my field partner got split open last year. When those trees fall, they leave behind sharp, dead limbs that can easily impale you if you slip. Most of our work is off trail and so we are forced to trek through miles of downed forests. It’s literally hours of non-stop hurdling over or climbing under trees. Sometimes they’re wet and slippery. Or the pack of gear on your back shifts and so does your balance. Sometimes these forests are on level ground and sometimes they are on mountainsides so it’s a mix of climbing and hurdling and just hoping the agony ends well.

2014-06-13 15.57.51
Nature’s shives. This what I’m referring to.
downed trees
This, unfortunately, is a common site.

Who knew that frog hunting could be so dangerous! But to me, for all the reasons I listed in my last post, it’s worth this crazy/stupid amount of risk. But it’s interesting to consider that the potentially deadliest risks are the ones most often overlooked. I am by no means implying that we should be afraid of everything. In fact, I’m tongue-in-cheek saying the exact opposite. Death is just around the corner and it comes in the most unexpected packages so why bother fearing anything? It’s a waste of time. Did that fella who died a few days ago ever imagine in a million years that a tree would be the death of him? I doubt it.

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