Bears, A Yellowstone Love Story
As often happens in a love story, it starts with a chance encounter.
In Yellowstone, it seems, everyone loves the bears. Our love affair with bears begins anew with each sighting, but it’s a story that has played out since the first tourists visited the park over 130 years ago. And it’s a love that has only grown stronger over time.
[Montage of park visitors and employees]
“The first time I saw a bear… let’s see, that was…”
“One time on Dunraven Pass…”
“Over by Norris…”
“I was working the visitor center desk and I happened to look out the window…”
“And all of a sudden people came running saying, ‘There’s a bear in the backyard! There’s a bear in the backyard!’”
“Suddenly there were three of them right next to the road.”
“The bear was right next to our car.”
“The Grizzly bear was laying down for awhile but then it started heading up, our way.”
“And then my Dad and I were with our faces pressed against the window, like ‘Oh my gosh!’”
“She screamed because the bear was right outside of her door.”
“It looked at the people, too, and it didn’t care.”
“And they were right above us and it was just such an amazing sight.”
“It was amazing to see them.”
“It was just so amazing.”
“It was really cool.”
“It was just so cool.”
Yellowstone is home to about 500 black bears and anywhere from 300-600 grizzlies. The bears’ admirers, however, number in the millions.
The first visitors and inhabitants in Yellowstone viewed them as a potential threat, an aggressive animal to be respected, and a creature of great intelligence.
That intelligence enabled them to quickly adapt to the presence of an increasing number of people. It wasn’t long before they learned to use us to their best advantage.
By the late 1800s, bears had figured out that where there were people there was food. For the next eighty years, a hallmark of every Yellowstone visit was looking for bears begging along the roadside or watching them fed on food scraps at the hotel garbage dumps. We loved them – they loved our lunch.
Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone Bear Management Specialist, talking.
Kerry Gunther: [This is paraphrased]“The first reports of grizzlies feeding on garbage dumps was in the 1880s – black bears gathered at the garbage dumps. Within a few years, grizzlies also. The first incidence of black bears panhandling occurred in 1910 – even before motorized vehicles. Every night at the dumps you’d see handouts – people doing strange things to get pictures with the bears. People would pose with bears, feed the bears. There were also bears coming into the roadside campgrounds every night stealing dinners. There were beggar bears between the junctions trying to stop traffic. They were everywhere.
Some bears would come up to the back porch of the hotels. They were treated as pets – even some park employees had bears as pets.”
Having been raised on Yogi Bear and Winnie the Pooh, Yellowstone’s visitors often thought of Yellowstone’s bears as cartoon bears or teddy bears. And the bears often seemed to play up that image.
For awhile, even the National Park Service got into the business of bear feeding. Bears visited dumps behind park hotels, and people visited the dumps to watch the bears. Bear watching at the dumps became so popular that the park service eventually built grandstands and hosted nightly lectures –in the 1920s, almost 3000 people would gather at the Old Faithful dump for the evening ranger program.
The constant supply of human food – both on the roadsides and in the dumps – made many bears realize that people weren’t a threat. They lost their fear of humans – a process called habituation. About fifty people every summer were getting scratched, bit – or mauled. It was simply out of hand.
By 1970, park managers decided it was time for a little tough love.
The National Park Service – in a sweeping and controversial move – closed all of the dumps inside Yellowstone National Park within a few years. Rangers cracked down on roadside feeding of bears. After almost a century of eating human food and passing on their beggar ways to their cubs, bears had to turn to wild foods again. Some began raiding campgrounds for human food. The worst offenders – both black bears and grizzlies – were killed. It became a public relations nightmare for the National Park Service, but the agency stuck by its mandate to protect and restore natural conditions in the park. Fortunately, Yellowstone’s bears proved remarkably adaptable and eventually returned to a natural diet.
There still are instances of habituated bears in Yellowstone, but they are rare. Bear 264, for instance, became so tolerant of people that she is probably the most photographed bear in America. She was struck and killed by a car in 2003.
Other, younger bears sometimes enter campgrounds, most likely out of simple curiosity. Kerry Gunther: “In recent years we have had a few bears that have learned how to crush tents. The did it for a food reward. One bear learned to do it for fun or play. We had another bear that would belly flop on tents and then walk away. But that’s not longer happening.”
Today, Yellowstone’s bears may be seen less often than their roadside counterparts of old, but they are still exist in healthy numbers. When they venture to a roadside, it’s because that road passes through their natural habitat, not because they’re expecting a handout. And human injuries due to bears are down from fifty each summer to one each year.
For some, Yellowstone will always be a disappointment without the roadside beggar bears – the romance has lost some of its pizzazz. For others, the love affair with Yellowstone’s bears has taken on a new depth and significance. By appreciating them from a distance, we can better see them for the wild bears that they are.
In Yellowstone, our love affair with the bears goes on. But that love, as often happens, has evolved over time, as we learn more. So how will we write this new chapter our love story? What would we say now?
[Montage of park visitors and employees:]
Dear Yellowstone’s bears;
You are the bears of our imaginations -
our dreams -
and our nightmares.
You terrify us -
and enchant us.
You are the inspiration for the teddy bears that we grew up with -
and of the cartoon bears who make us laugh.
But you are not those bears.
You are wild.
You are unpredictable.
You exist on your own terms.
And for that we respect you.
And love you.