What We Do

Seeing wildlife in parks is an exciting and awe-inspiring opportunity. Encouraging visitors to keep safe distances from wildlife is challenging when the draw is so charismatic. The Safe Wildlife Distance campaign began with a simple question: how can parks encourage visitors to keep safe distances from wildlife by using communication science? The National Park Service and Colorado State University worked together in 2017 to create and test a communication campaign to encourage more park visitors to keep their distance from wildlife. The campaign complemented existing strategies and was tested campaign in four national parks:

  • Grand Canyon National Park (target wildlife: squirrels and elk)
  • Assateague Island National Seashore (target wildlife: wild horses and seals*
  • Rocky Mountain National Park (target wildlife: elk, bighorn sheep*, moose*, and black bears*
  • Shenandoah National Park (target wildlife: white-tailed deer and black bears*
*Campaign communicated about these wildlife species, but data were not collected on them

What were the results?

The campaign successfully increased the proportion of visitors keeping safe distances from wildlife at three of the parks by at least 16%. At Grand Canyon National Park, it increased the proportion visitors keeping further away, but still not at their desired safe distance of 100 feet (30 meters) for elk and 25 feet (15 meters) for squirrels. Read the research article Encouraging Safe Wildlife Viewing in National Parks: Effects of a Communication Campaign on Visitors’ Behavior for more detailed information about the project and the results.

Why do we think these messages and visuals work?

The “long-distance relationship is the best kind of relationship” campaign was designed to make staying the safe distance from wildlife enjoyable, easy, and popular.

  • Enjoyable – The campaign supports what visitors want to do by providing tips on positive viewing experiences and how to take good photographs. The campaign focuses on personal benefit to visitors in its messages relating to wildlife viewing distances instead of fear appeals. This is an important messaging approach when visitor risk perceptions could be low.
  • Easy – It makes judging distances easy for visitors by using familiar objects (buses) as a distance marker.
  • Popular – It capitalizes on the use of social media to share and spread social norms. Additionally, the campaign provides informaton to help support what people want to do--get a great photo or video.

It also aims to disrupt people’s assumptions about interacting with wildlife to help them develop new thoughts and norms about interacting with wildlife in parks. The infographic-style visual for the campaign transcends languages and literacy levels to help visitors both know the safe distances and judge the distances more accurately.

How did we measure the impact?

Trained researchers collected data over a Saturday and Sunday before the campaign was in place, and then again the following weekend once the campaign was in place. Parks rolled the campaign out beginning on the Thursday prior to the post-test data collection period. Researchers scouted for visitor-wildlife interactions in selected areas of the parks where staff indicated they were likely to occur. Using a counter app on a smartphone, they counted the total number of visitors within whatever the safe distance was for that species (1 bus-length, 2 bus-lengths, etc.) up to 100 yards of the wildlife and within view. They also counted the numbers of visitors within different distance ranges of the wildlife (e.g., 19-24 yards, 13-18 yards, 12 or fewer yards). If “visitor A” started out at a safe distance, but then moved to within 12 yards of the wildlife, that visitor was counted in the “within 12 yards” category only. The researchers blended in with visitors so they were not influenced by their presence. Researchers did not engage with visitors. After data were collected, a researcher compared the pre-test (before campaign) to the post-test (campaign in place) visitor proportions to determine whether there was a difference in the number of visitors at safe distances from wildlife.

How was the campaign developed?

Academics at Colorado State University who study science and risk communication and social-psychological factors underlying human-wildlife conflict compiled theories and research on behavior change and risk communication in the context of human-wildlife interaction; interviewed wildlife biologists, interpretation, and information specialist staff from seven national parks; and conducted observations of visitor-wildlife interaction in four national parks. Those activities resulted in a conceptualization of communication messages and strategies that we believed would lead to more visitors keeping safe distances from wildlife in parks. We worked very closely with a creative firm to bring the theoretical ideas to life in a campaign.

What Parks Can Do

Get information about how to implement this campaign in your park.

Bighorn sheep
Digital Media

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Print Media

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Last updated: November 7, 2019


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