History of Bear Management

Bears being fed at a "lunch counter"
From 1921 to mid-1930s, "Lunch Counter - For Bears Only" at Old Faithful, southeast of the upper Hamilton Store, and Ranger Naturalist Walter Phillip Martindale.

NPS / Photographer unknown


During its first century, Yellowstone National Park was known as the place to see and interact with bears. Hundreds of people gathered nightly to watch bears feed on garbage in the park’s dumps. Enthusiastic visitors fed bears along the roads and behaved recklessly to take photographs.

Beginning in 1931, park managers recorded an average of 48 bear-inflicted human injuries and more than 100 incidents of property damage each year in Yellowstone. In 1960, the park implemented a bear management program directed primarily at black bears and designed to reduce the number of bear-caused human injuries and property damages and to re-establish bears in a natural state. The plan included expanding visitor education about bear behavior and the proper way to store food and other bear attractants; installing bear-proof garbage cans; strictly prohibiting feeding of bears; and removing potentially dangerous bears, habituated bears, and bears that damaged property in search of food. The open-pit garbage dumps remained open.

After 10 years, the number of bear-caused human injuries decreased slightly to an average of 45 each year. In 1970, Yellowstone initiated a more intensive program that included eliminating open-pit garbage dumps inside the park with the intention of returning bears to a natural diet of plant and animal foods.

Bear researchers and brothers John and Frank Craighead predicted bears would range more widely and come into more conflict with humans as the bears were weaned off of human food. This prediction was realized in the first years of the revised management program: an annual average of 38 grizzly bears and 23 black bears were moved to backcountry areas, and an annual average of 12 grizzly bears and 6 black bears were removed from the population. However, the number of bear-human conflicts decreased to an annual average of 10 each year after 1972. Bear removals also decreased.

In 1983, the park implemented a new grizzly bear management program that emphasized habitat protection in backcountry areas. The park established “bear management areas” that restricted recreational use where grizzly bears were known to concentrate. The goals were to minimize bear-human interactions that might lead to habituation of bears to people, to prevent human-caused displacement of bears from prime food sources, and to decrease the risk of bear-caused human injury in areas with high levels of bear activity. This program continues today.


Quick Facts

Early Interactions

  • Late 1880s: Bears begin gathering at night to feed on garbage behind park hotels.
  • 1910: First incidents of bears seeking human food along park roads.
  • 1916: First confirmed bear-caused human fatality.

Early Management

  • 1931: Park begins keeping detailed records of bear-inflicted human injuries, property damage, and bear control actions.
  • 1931–1969: average of 48 bear-inflicted human injuries and more than 100 incidents of property damage occur annually.

Changes in Management in 1970

  • 1970: Yellowstone implements a new bear management program to restore bears to a diet of natural foods and to reduce property damage and human injuries.
  • Strictly enforcing regulations prohibiting the feeding of bears and requiring proper storage of human food and garbage.
  • All garbage cans in the park convert to a bear-proof design.
  • Garbage dumps close within and adjacent to the park.

Recent Progress

  • Decrease in human injuries from 45 injuries per year in the 1960s to 1 injury per year in the 2000s.
  • Decrease in property damage claims from 219 per year in the 1960s to an average of 15 per year in the 2000s.
  • Decrease in number of bears that must be killed or removed from the park from 33 black bears and 4 grizzlies per year in the 1960s to an average of 0.34 black bear and 0.2 grizzly bear per year in the 2000s.
Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Grizzlies & the Endangered Species Act

On July 28, 1975, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, as amended, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed four distinct populations of grizzly bear in the lower 48 states as “threatened,” in part, because the species was reduced to only about 2% of its former range south of Canada. Five or six small populations were thought to remain, totaling 800 to 1,000 bears. The southernmost—and most isolated—of those populations was in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where 136 grizzly bears were thought to live in the mid-1970s. The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection. To achieve this goal, federal and state agencies:

  • Stopped the grizzly hunting seasons in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (outside national park boundaries).
  • Established the Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery area (Yellowstone National Park, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, portions of Grand Teton National Park, national forests surrounding Yellowstone, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state and private land in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming).
  • Created the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to coordinate bear research and monitoring among the federal agencies and state wildlife managers; the team monitors bear populations and studies grizzly bear food habits and behavior.
  • Established the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to increase communication and cooperation among managers in all recovery areas, and to supervise public education programs, sanitation initiatives, and research studies.
a park ranger adjusting a trail camera
Setting remote cameras during an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team bear capture operation.

The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was established in 1993 and revised in 2006. This plan guides management when the grizzly is on the threatened species list. Bear managers will use the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy if the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bear is removed from the threatened and endangered species list. The Conservation Strategy is the long-term guide for managing and monitoring the grizzly bear population and assuring sufficient habitat to maintain recovery. It emphasizes coordination and cooperative working relationships among management agencies, landowners, and the public to ensure public support, continue the application of best scientific principles, and maintain effective actions to benefit the coexistence of grizzlies and humans. It incorporates existing laws, regulations, policies, and goals. The strategy has built-in flexibility:

  • Grizzly–human conflict management and bear habitat management are high priorities in the recovery zone, which is known as the Primary Conservation Area. Bears are favored when grizzly habitat and other land uses are incompatible; grizzly bears are actively discouraged and controlled in developed areas.
  • State wildlife agencies have primary responsibility to manage grizzly bears outside of national parks, including bears on national forests; national parks manage bears and habitat within their jurisdictions.
  • State and federal wildlife managers will continue to monitor the grizzly population and habitat conditions using the most feasible and accepted techniques.
  • Managers will remove nuisance bears conservatively and within mortality limits outlined above, and with minimal removal of females; they will emphasize removing the human cause of conflict rather than removing a bear.
  • Outside the Primary Conservation Area, states develop management plans that define how grizzly bears are to be managed.

Timeline of Listing & Delisting (1975-2018)

  • 1975: The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species, which required recovering the species to a self-sustaining population.
  • 1993: A recovery plan is implemented with three specific recovery goals that have to be met for six consecutive years.
  • 2000: Draft Conservation Strategy for the Grizzly Bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is completed.
  • 2002: Conservation Strategy is approved after public comment period—16,794 comments were received. It will be implemented when the grizzly is removed from the threatened species list.
  • 2003: Recovery goals are met for the sixth year in a row.
  • 2005: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes removing the grizzly bear from the threatened species list.
  • 2006: The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan is modified to update methods of estimating population size and sustainable mortality.
  • 2007: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem distinct population segment of grizzly bear population is removed from the threatened species list. Conservation Strategy is implemented. Several groups file lawsuits challenging the decision.
  • 2009: A federal district judge overturned the delisting ruling, placing grizzly bears back on the threatened species list claiming: (1) the Conservation Strategy was unenforceable, and (2) that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of the potential loss of whitebark pine nuts, a grizzly bear food source.
  • 2010: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service appeals the decision to keep the grizzly bear on the threatened species list.
  • 2011: An appeals court rules the grizzly bear should remain on the threatened species list. They determined that the Conservation Strategy did in fact provide adequate regulatory mechanisms were in place. But the court upheld the lower court ruling that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not sufficiently address the potential impacts from reduction of whitebark pine and other foods.
  • 2013: Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team recommend that grizzly bears be removed from the threatened species list because alternative foods are available and the reduction of whitebark pine is not having a significant impact on bears at this time.
  • 2017: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removes the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from the threatened species list.
  • 2018: A U.S. District Judge restored protections for the Yellowstone-area population of grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.

More Information

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Science Publications & Reports

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Park Management History

Learn more about how Yellowstone has managed a variety of natural, historic, and cultural resources in the past.

Last updated: March 28, 2024

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