How national parks use social media to track down miscreants
Sandwiched between staff promotion and visitation tips, Yellowstone National Park’s Instagram page has a screenshot from a video taken by park visitor Darcie Addington.
In the image, which has been liked more than 50,000 times and likely seen by a good fraction of the park’s 1.2 million followers, an unidentified woman is seen fleeing from a grizzly bear that charged her May 10 at the Roaring Mountain parking lot. Luckily, many of the comments read, the bear was only bluffing.
“She’s lucky to be alive,” wrote photographer Mark D’Almeida.
The post, park spokesperson Linda Veress said, was made to promote a public safety message: Don’t get close to bears.
Safe distance is 100 yards, but many recommend an even larger radius, as bear behavior can be unpredictable. Safest viewing is from inside vehicles.
The image of the evading woman is also accompanied by a caption asking members of the public to reach out via phone, email, or an online tip line if they know her.
The unidentified woman is far from the only wanted face in national park feeds. Parks across the country pepper their social media accounts with call-outs ranging from negligent hikers to sexual assault offenders under investigation by the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch, which operates similarly to the FBI.
Often, the responses range from helpful to cruel. In this case, comments ranged from offering leads on identification to belittling the woman’s appearance.
“How is this not viewed as a possible harassment of this woman?” one commenter wrote about the May 10 grizzly incident (which is still under investigation). “There has got to be a better way to find this woman than to publicly shame her.”
In general, Veress said, the wanted-style posts are “not often” part of the park’s feeds. If a public safety message can be made without drawing attention to an individual, the park prefers to stick to generalities.
Grand Teton National Park has taken a similar tack. Rather than plaster its pages with images of every heedless dog walker, staff will gently remind visitors in general captions that furry companions are not allowed on park trails.
Sometimes a specific callout, especially in today’s cancel-culture society, can distract from the broader message. As commenters dash the offender the thrust becomes “Look at this fool” rather than “This is a dangerous action park visitors should avoid.”
But there’s also a difference between breaking park 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 branch to seek out and build a case against offenders.
One such individual is under investigation for illegally teeing off golf balls in Yellowstone. The golfer and social media influencer, who gained his following by hitting balls in every state in under 30 days, has since issued an apology on his Instagram and TikTok pages, where a combined 90,000 followers have kept up with his shenanigans.
In the post and in interviews with The Wall Street Journal he explains that he thought he was taking every precaution by using biodegradable golf balls.
“I’ve learned so much from this,” he told the News&Guide in an interview earlier this month.
But the self-described comedian has undoubtedly used the attention, both from the original golf swings on protected lands and from the national coverage of the ensuing investigation, to grow his following and his brand.
The day after the story broke 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 has not used its platforms to promote or admonish the golfer influencer. The investigation, which is being handled by the park, is ongoing.
Wanted posters have often led to a bit of fame and mystery, partially because of their connection to Wild West iconography, said Sherry Smith, a historian of the American West and part-time Moose resident.
Like traditional handbills and signs distributed in the days of the Old West, Smith thinks the transition to plastering criminals’ faces on social media is merely a way to reach a broader audience.
“It’s just a 21st century version of a centuries-old tradition,” the historian said.
But the parks haven’t given up traditional, printed posters altogether. At the base of trails in Grand Teton National Park, there are wanted signs posted with mountain goat mug shots. The goats are an invasive species, and the park is trying to find them. They’re asking hikers to report any sightings to rangers.
Veress said it’s more common to use the global, instantaneous reach of social media for cases like missing hikers, such as the current search for Cian McLaughlin in Teton Park.
Through daily updates the Wyoming park has comforted friends and family members, tuning in from McLaughlin’s Ireland hometown, and solicited tips from the public by promoting phone and email lines.
As of June 18, the park had received more than 140 tips, it announced on Instagram. The hiker, who was last reported seen on June 7, has still not been found.
Similarly, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks used social media this year to request information on two missing hikers, both of whom were eventually found, though the one in Yosemite had died.
With so much of modern travel also including social media use, some accounts take on the role of spreading the word themselves. Sites like @publiclandshateyou have set out to encourage “leave no trace” principles geared specifically for the digital age. Avoiding specific geotagging for backcountry locations is a big one, and on the encouraging side they urge influencers to use their platforms for good.
Other accounts take a more pejorative approach. Three of the recent @touronsofyellowstone posts feature so-called “tourist morons” playing volleyball by Grand Prismatic Spring, approaching grizzly cubs and hiking on Soda Butte Cone.
Dangerous risk taking and blatant rule breaking provoke some of the social media shaming, as evidenced by two Canadian travel bloggers who received jail time for walking on Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring in 2016, and then later died after falling from a 100-foot waterfall in British Columbia in July 2018.
Calling themselves, the “High On Life SundayFundayz” group, they had a popular YouTube channel, and their exploits went viral after they trod on the sensitive features in Yellowstone and other national parks.
An internet watcher alerted rangers. Along with other High On Life friends, they pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct by creating a hazardous condition in a thermal area. They also pleaded guilty to commercial photography without a permit, use of a drone in a closed area and riding a bike in wilderness in Zion, Death Valley and Mesa Verde.
The incident spurred a wave of internet hate from park and conservation advocates, while the British Columbians portrayed themselves as adventure seekers who didn’t let rules bother them in pursuit of a good time.
For its part, Yellowstone National Park works off its own social media policy for its official pages, created by a digital communications team that works separately from other national parks.
The National Park Service follows Department of the Interior policy for official use of social media sites and platforms, a spokesperson said.
That spokesperson also said social media is just “one tool in our toolbox” to help advance park 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 representing at least 50 countries using more than 45 languages.
“This outreach helps us protect parks, the natural and historic resources they were established to preserve, and the people who visit, work, and live in these amazing places,” public affairs specialist Cynthia Hernandez wrote in an email to the News&Guide.
“It also aids investigations and helps us bring justice for victims of crimes.”