THE BEARS OF YELLOWSTONE

In the early 1960s, if you and your family had visited Yellowstone National Park, you probably would have seen bears begging for food along the roadside. In fact, you might have been caught in one of the frequent traffic jams where people were photographing the spectacle of visitors feeding bears. Today in Yellowstone, feeding bears is prohibited, but one of the most frequently asked questions is still, “Where can I see a bear?” Many people do see a bear (from a safe distance) behaving like a wild bear should, and they consider it a thrill of a lifetime.Although Yellowstone was originally designated a national park to protect the area’s geothermal features and scenic wonders, bears quickly became one of the park’s primary attractions. For hundreds of years, bears roamed this area, eating mostly roots, berries, insects, ground squirrels, and pine nuts. In spring, they fed on fish and the carcasses of winterkilled bison or elk. Then humans arrived. As early as 1888, some black bears had lost their wariness of humans and were gathering to feed on garbage piles near park hotels. Within a few years grizzly bears were also frequenting park dumps in search of food. The dumps soon became popular tourist attractions. In 1891, the acting park superintendent reported that bears had become very troublesome at all hotels, camps, and other places in Yellowstone where human food or garbage could be found, and that it might become necessary to occasionally remove bears that became too destructive. In 1910, the first accounts of black bears begging for human food handouts along park roads were reported. By the 1920s roadside “panhandling” by black bears for human food
handouts was common. Similar behavior in grizzly bears was not reported.

As park visitation and the number of bear-human conflicts began to increase, park managers became more concerned with the situation. Between 1931 and 1959, an average of 48 park visitors were injured by bears and an average of 138 cases of bear-caused property damage were reported each year. The high incidence of bear-caused human injuries was thought to be due to changes in bear behavior caused by the availability of human food and garbage. In short, bears were not behaving like wild bears, and the consequences to humans as well as to bears were unacceptable.

In 1970, Yellowstone initiated an intensive bear management program with the objectives of restoring the grizzly bear and black bear populations to subsistence on natural foods and reducing bear-caused human injuries and property damages. As part of the program, regulations that prohibited the feeding of bears were strictly enforced, all garbage cans throughout the park were made bear-proof, and all garbage dumps within the park were closed. The 1970 bear management plan was highly successful in reducing the number of bear-human conflicts occurring in the park. Following implementation of the program, the number of bear-inflicted human injuries and bear-caused property damages in the park
declined significantly. Today, an average of fewer than one bear-inflicted human injury and only 12 bear-caused property damages are reported each year.

Due to high numbers of human-caused grizzly bear mortalities, loss of habitat, and geographic isolation from other grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states, the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone ecosystem was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Since that time, the grizzly bear population has improved. The average annual number of female bears with cubs has nearly doubled, and the average litter size has also increased. The grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone ecosystem is now very close to meeting all of the population requirements set by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service for delisting. A conservation strategy is currently being developed for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The conservation strategy will detail the habitat and population management and monitoring methods that will be used if and when the population is removed from the threatened species list.

For many generations, people have been fascinated with bears. Nearly every child has some type of “teddy bear” in his or her young life (the teddy bear was created in the early 1900s after a story was written about Theodore Roosevelt–sportsman, conservationist, and President–not shooting a small black bear cub while on a hunting trip). The opportunity that Americans still have in Yellowstone to see grizzly–and black–bears is extraordinary. While it is exciting to see a bear in the park, for many it is enough to just know that there are places left in this nation where wild, free-roaming animals live as they
did before our technologically advanced and highly mobile society displaced them from their original home ranges. Making a place for bears requires some sacrifice, lots of understanding, and a willingness to learn. If we succeed, the fact that the bear can survive and prosper in the greater Yellowstone region will say much about us as a nation.