This is a love story. And as often happens in a love story, it starts with a chance encounter.
In Yellowstone, it seems, everyone loves the bears. Our love affair begins anew with each sighting. But it’s a story that has played out since the first visitors came to Yellowstone. And it’s a love that has only grown stronger over time.
“I think my favorite encounter with a bear…” “Well let’s see, that would have had to have been…” “One time on Dunraven Pass…” “When we were 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 around the corner saying, ‘There’s a bear in the backyard! There’s a bear in the backyard!’” “Suddenly there were three of them, all right next to the road.” “The bear was only a few feet from the car…” “The Grizzly bear was laying down for awhile but then it started heading up, our way.” “And then my Dad and I were faces 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 a beautiful sight.” “It was amazing to see them.” “It was just so amazing.” “It was really cool.” “It was just so cool.”
Yellowstone National Park is home to about 500 black bears and anywhere from 100 to 200 grizzly bears. The bears’ admirers, however, number in the millions.
The first visitors and inhabitants in Yellowstone viewed bears as a potential threat, an aggressive animal to be respected, and a creature of great intelligence.
That intelligence enabled bears 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: “Visitors to Yellowstone National Park in the early years would come to the dumps to see bears feed on the garbage at night. They would also see bears lining the roadsides, panhandling for human food handouts, all along the park roads. And many visitors would stop and feed bears and try to lure bears into interesting photographic positions with food. Get bears inside their cars, behind their cameras, in different positions to get pictures. There were also bears coming into the roadside campgrounds every night, joining people for dinner. Getting up on picnic tables, eating people’s food. Some bears would come up to the back doors of hotels every night about the same time, when they knew the kitchen scraps would be thrown out the back door. And so people treated the bears as pets and even some of the park employees actually had bear cubs as pets. So it was really pretty crazy.”
Having been raised on Yogi Bear and Winnie the Pooh, park visitors often thought of Yellowstone’s bears as cartoon bears or teddy bears. And the bears themselves often seemed to play up that image.
For a while, 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 ranger programs for up to 3000 spectators.
The constant supply of human food – both at the dumps and on the roadsides – made many bears realize that people weren’t a threat. They lost their fear of humans, a process called habituation. They also became conditioned to human foods. It was a dangerous combination. About fifty people every summer were getting scratched, bitten, 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 again turn to wild foods. 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 some instances of habituated bears in Yellowstone. Bear 264, for instance… a female grizzy who often was seen between Mammoth and Norris. She became so tolerant of people that she was possibly 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’ve had a few bears that have learned to crush tents. And some of them, I think, have gotten a food reward because they’ll crush a tent and then dig through it as if they are looking for something. We had one other bird who appeared to do it just for fun, or play. He would walk up, belly flop on a tent, and then just walk away. We never did catch that bear or prove which bear it was, and it’s no longer happening. We think he outgrew it”
Today, Yellowstone’s bears may be seen less often than their roadside counterparts of old, but they still exist in healthy numbers. When they do 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 about one per 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 are the inspiration for the teddy bears that we grew up with, and of the cartoon bears that 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.
Yellowstone is prime habitat for both grizzly bears and black bears. With a little luck, you might spot one on a visit to the park. But it’s not as easy as you might think to tell them apart. Here are some clues to help distinguish between grizzly bears and black bears.
Due to their name, you might think that black bears are black, and grizzly bears are …well… some other color. But all of Yellowstone’s bears – both black bears and grizzlies – can be black, brown, or even blonde. Because of their reputations, you might also think that all black bears are much smaller than grizzlies. Grizzlies are generally bigger, but a big black bear can easily outweigh a female grizzly or a young grizzly. Without color or size as a guide, you have to look at other features.
The best way to tell grizzlies and black bears apart at a distance is by their body shape. Grizzlies have a distinct hump on their shoulders that is higher than their rump. This hump is a mass of muscle that makes their front legs powerful digging tools. Black bears have only a slight shoulder hump if any at all, and their rump is higher than their shoulders.
Another way you can tell the two bears apart is by the shape of their face. Grizzly bears have a clear depression between their eyes and snout, a dished-in profile. Black bears have a straight profile between their eyes and snout. Grizzly bears also have relatively smaller, more rounded ears, whereas black bears have more prominent, oval shaped ears.
You can also tell grizzly and black bears apart from the tracks they leave. The toes of a grizzly bear are in fairly straight line, not too dissimilar from those of a human’s. And, because grizzlies have long, straight claws, the claw marks show up quite a distance from the bear’s toes. The toes of a black bear, in contrast, are arranged in an arc. Their shorter claws leave marks closer to the toes.
So other clues are much more reliable than color or size to differentiate black bears and grizzlies. But why, then, are they named the way they are? Black bears got their common name because, in many other parts of the country besides Yellowstone, most of them are black. Grizzlies are so named because the tips of their fur are often silver, lending them a “grizzled” appearance. In Yellowstone, many grizzlies do indeed have grizzled fur. But if you’re close enough to see those silver tips, you’re probably far too close to the bear.
For your own safety and for that of the bear, park regulations require that you stay at least 100 yards from bears, that’s the length of a football field. You can find more information about staying safe in bear country on the park’s website.
By watching bears from distance, you can help ensure all bears, black or grizzly, will stay wild and survive to thrill the next park visitor lucky enough to spot a bear.