This project began with a simple question: how can parks encourage visitors to keep safe distances from wildlife by using better communication science? The National Park Service and Colorado State University worked together to create and test a communication campaign to encourage more park visitors to keep their distance from wildlife. We tested this 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.

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, we 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. We 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 our presence. Researchers did not engage with visitors. After data were collected, we compared the pre-test (before campaign) to the post-test (campaign in place) visitor proportions to determine whether there was a difference. More details, including our data collection instrument, are available if you contact Katie Abrams.

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 closely with a creative firm to bring the theoretical ideas to life in a campaign.

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. 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.

Want to know more?

Currently, we have the following additional materials available to share that provide more insights on the research-based development and results of the project:

Contact Katie Abrams for any of these materials or with questions.

Want to work with us?

We’re open to collaborations with individual parks (national, state, and county), organizations, and businesses that are interested in improving communication around human-wildlife conflict issues. Colorado State University offers wordclass expertise in this area with our Center for Science Communication in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication. This new center is under development and formalization but our faculty are already leading numerous projects in partnerships with the National Park Service, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Forest Service, and United States Geological Survey.

Reach out to Katie Abrams for collaborations.