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Tourist pleads guilty for handling a Yellowstone bison calf, leading to its death

Clifford Walters, a Hawaii man, plead guilty to disturbing wildlife after he tried to help a stranded bison calf reunite with its herd.
Hellen Jack
National Park Service
Clifford Walters, a Hawaii man, plead guilty to disturbing wildlife after he tried to help a stranded bison calf reunite with its herd.

A man has pleaded guilty to handling a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park in an incident that ultimately led to the calf's death, officials said on Wednesday.

Clifford Walters, a Hawaii resident, was charged with "one count of feeding, touching, teasing, frightening, or intentionally disturbing wildlife," according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Wyoming.

Walters paid over $1,000 in fines, including a $500 community service payment to Yellowstone's wildlife protection fund, the attorney's office said.

According to an initial report from the National Park Service, the newborn bison had been separated from its mother on May 20 as its herd was crossing the Lamar River.

Walters, observing the scene, tried to help the calf by pushing it up the bank, into the roadway, NPS said.

Park rangers repeatedly tried to reunite the calf with the herd, but the herd resisted, which is common when humans interfere with wildlife, NPS said.

The calf was later euthanized by park staff because it was "causing a hazardous situation by approaching cars and people along the roadway," according to a press release.

In reviewing the report, the attorney's office said there was nothing to suggest Walters "acted maliciously."

NPR made several attempts to contact Walters for comment but could not confirm reliable contact information for him.

Why did Yellowstone have to euthanize the calf?

As the initial news of the calf's death broke last week, thousands of NPR readers responded on social media with concern, frustration and confusion. Many wanted to know: Did park rangers really need to euthanize the animal?

In a follow-up statement, NPS firmly defended its decision, saying that it made the choice "not because we are lazy, uncaring, or inexpert in our understanding of bison biology" but because "national parks preserve natural processes."

Even before news of the calf started gaining traction online, Yellowstone was clear on its policy of not rescuing and rehabilitating animals. It lists only a handful of situations in which it might intervene, including if Congress directs it to or if the long-term health of an ecosystem is at risk.

The fate of a sole bison calf — one of roughly 5,900 bison in the park — falls outside of that list.

"In fact, as many as 25% of the bison calves born this spring will die, but those deaths will benefit other animals by feeding everything from bears and wolves to birds and insects," NPS said in its second statement.

"Unfortunately, the calf's behavior on roads and around people was hazardous, so rangers had to intervene: but the calf's body was left on the landscape," the agency added.

Why couldn't the park bring the calf to an animal sanctuary?

NPS also pointed out that it's illegal to transport bison out of Yellowstone "unless those bison are going to meat processing or scientific research facilities."

The states of Montana, and, to a lesser extent, Wyoming, limit the transport of live bison in order to protect local livestock. Mass migrations of the species could damage local property, compete for local food supplies and spread brucellosis, a bacterial disease that only marginally affects bison but causes infertility and low milk production in domestic cows.

Brucellosis cases spiked in the U.S. in the mid-1900s, causing the U.S. Animal and Plant Inspection Service to implement nationwide livestock testing and vaccination requirements.

Today, the spread of brucellosis among Yellowstone's free-ranging bison is one of the issues monitored by the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative of eight groups, including federal agencies and tribal nations.

That group has agreed to start transferring some live bison to tribal nations as a way to restore herds outside of Yellowstone and manage the size of the park's own healthy herd. But any transferred bison have to first be quarantined and tested for brucellosis.

The testing process can be lengthy and expensive. (It took 17 months for the first transferred group to be tested in 2019 — and that was on top of eight years of working out the legal logistics to make it happen, NPS said.) In the end, only about 30% of animals qualify for the program.

"A newborn calf that's abandoned and unable to care for itself is not a good candidate for quarantine," the park said last week.

For anyone still looking for a good takeaway about preventing another unfortunate animal death, Yellowstone wants to underscore this one: "Give animals room to roam."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.