JACKSON – Nestled between recruiting and visiting tips, Yellowstone National Park’s Instagram page features a screenshot from a video captured by park visitor Darcie Addington.
The picture, which has been liked more than 50,000 times and was likely seen by a good fraction of the park’s 1.2 million followers, shows an unidentified woman fleeing from a grizzly bear that hit her on May 10th Attacked Roaring Mountain parking lot. Fortunately, many of the comments bluffed, the bear was just bluffing.
“She is lucky to be still alive,” wrote photographer Mark D’Almeida.
The post, said park spokeswoman Linda Veress, was created to promote a public safety message: don’t get too close to bears.
The safe distance is 100 meters, but many recommend an even larger radius as the bears’ behavior can be unpredictable. The safest view is from inside vehicles.
The image of the evasive woman is also accompanied by a caption asking the public to contact them by phone, email, or an online tip line if they know them.
The unknown woman is far from the only wanted face in National Park feeds. Parks across the country are littering their social media accounts with clues ranging from negligent hikers to sexual assault perpetrators, under investigation by the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch, which operates similarly to the FBI.
Often times the answers range from helpful to cruel. In this case, comments ranged from offering clues for identification to degrading the woman’s appearance.
“How is this not viewed as a possible harassment of this woman?” one commenter wrote about the May 10th grizzly incident (which is still under investigation). “There has to be a better way to find this woman than to publicly shame her.”
In general, Veress said, wanted posts are “not often” part of the park’s feeds. If a public safety message can be made without drawing attention to a person, the park prefers to stick to generalities.
Grand Teton National Park has taken a similar path. Instead of sticking pictures of every careless dog walker on its pages, the staff will gently remind visitors in general captions that furry companions are not allowed on park paths.
Sometimes, especially in today’s abandoned society, a specific clue can detract from the broader message. When commentators strike down the perpetrator, the thrust becomes “Look at this fool” instead of “This is a dangerous action park that visitors should avoid”.
But there is also a difference between breaking the parking rules and breaking the law.
National parks are one of the most protected categories of public land in the United States, and the Park Service has its own investigative department to identify criminals and set up a case against them.
One of these people is being investigated for illegal golf ball teeing off in Yellowstone. The golfer and social media influencer, who gained his following in every state in less than 30 days, has since apologized on his Instagram and TikTok pages, where a combined 90,000 followers have kept up with his gimmicks.
In the Post and in interviews with the Wall Street Journal, he states that he thought he would take every precaution by using biodegradable golf balls.
“I learned so much from it,” he told News & Guide in an interview earlier this month.
But the self-proclaimed comedian has undoubtedly used the attention of both the original golf shots on protected land and national coverage of the subsequent investigation to grow his following and brand.
The day after the story appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, he posted a video of the newspaper on his Instagram story, accompanied by a hype soundtrack.
Yellowstone did not use its platforms to promote or admonish the golfer influencer. The investigations being processed by the park are ongoing.
Wanted posters have often led to some fame and mystery, in part because of their connection to Wild West iconography, said Sherry Smith, a historian of the American West and part-time resident of Moose.
Like traditional leaflets and signs distributed in the days of the Old West, Smith believes the transition to plastering criminals’ faces on social media is just one way to reach a wider audience.
“It’s just one version of a centuries-old 21st century tradition,” said the historian.
But the parks haven’t entirely given up on traditional, printed posters. At the foot of the hiking trails in Grand Teton National Park there are wanted signs with mug photos of mountain goats. The goats are an invasive species and the park is trying to find them. They ask hikers to report any sightings to the rangers.
Veress said it was more common to use global, immediate reach of social media for cases like missing hikers, like the recent search for Cian McLaughlin in Teton Park.
With daily updates, the Wyoming park has comforted friends and family members, tuned in to McLaughlin’s Irish hometown, and solicited tips from the public through advertisements on phone and email lines.
By June 18, the park had received more than 140 tips, he said on Instagram. The hiker, last seen on June 7th, has still not been found.
Similarly, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks used social media that year to solicit information about two missing hikers, both of whom were eventually found despite the fact that the one had died in Yosemite.
With so many modern trips that include the use of social media, some reports take on the role of getting the word out themselves. Websites like @publiclandshateyou are committed to promoting the “leave no trace” principles specifically geared towards the digital age. Avoiding specific geotagging of backcountry locations is important, and on the encouraging side, they urge influencers to use their platforms forever.
Other accounts take a more derogatory approach. Three of the most recent @ touronsofyellowstone posts feature so-called “tourist idiots” playing volleyball from Grand Prismatic Spring, approaching grizzly boys, and wandering the Soda Butte Cone.
Dangerous risk-taking and blatant rule-breaking provoke some of the humiliations on social media, as evidenced by two Canadian travel bloggers who received jail sentences in 2016 for walking on Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring and later dying after falling by a 30-foot waterfall in the UK Colombia fell in July 2018.
Calling themselves the High On Life Sunday Fundayz group, they had a popular YouTube channel, and their exploits went viral after stepping on sensitive features in Yellowstone and other national parks.
An Internet observer alerted Ranger. Along with other High On Life friends, she pleaded guilty to the misconduct charge of creating a dangerous condition in a hot spring area. They also pleaded guilty to unauthorized commercial photography, drone use in an enclosed area, and wilderness cycling in Zion, Death Valley, and Mesa Verde.
The incident sparked a wave of internet hatred among park and conservation advocates while British Columbia portrayed themselves as adventurous seekers who don’t let rules bother them in order to have a good time.
For its part, Yellowstone National Park is working on its own social media policy for its official pages, created by a digital communications team that works separately from the Park Service organization.
The National Park Service follows Home Office guidelines for official use of social media sites and platforms, a spokesman said.
This spokesman also said that social media is just “a tool in our tool kit” to help advance parking investigations.
In 2020, social media posts from the Investigative Services Bureau’s accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram reached an estimated 3.8 million people. On Facebook, posts reached users from at least 50 countries in more than 45 languages.
“This commitment helps us protect parks, the natural and historical resources they were built to conserve, and the people who visit, work and live in these amazing places,” wrote public affairs specialist Cynthia Hernandez in an email to the News & Guide.
“It also helps with investigations and helps us bring justice to victims of crime.”