Visitors to Yellowstone National Park often went to see the wildlife in addition to the geothermal features (geysers, mud pots, etc.). Bears, like humans, are omnivores and they will happily eat a lot of the things that people like to eat. Between getting handouts from park visitors and from foraging in the garbage set out behind park hotels, bears developed a taste for human food. By the 1890s visitors commonly gathered at trash dumps to watch the spectacle of bears feeding in close proximity.
In 1902, the Park Service outlawed the hand feeding of bears, although visitors continued to engage in this practice. By 1910, there were documented reports of bears congregating by roads seeking food and the first confirmed fatality from a bear attack was recorded in 1916. Bears are normally cautious and shy, and although they exhibit curiosity, they are more likely to avoid contact with people. However, generations of bears at Yellowstone were conditioned to accept human presence by the powerful lure of easily available food. This situation became dangerous for both bears and people –injuries from bears began to rise and “problem bears” (bears who became aggressive foragers) would often be relocated or shot.
In 1970, the park implemented a new management program designed to wean bears of easily accessible human food and reduce injuries to people and property damage. Garbage dumps in the park were closed, the ban on feeding bears was actually enforced, a bear-proof containers for food and food waste were used. The result was that there was a decrease in the number of injuries from 45 to 1 per year from the 1960s to the 2000s and there was also a marked decreased in the number of bears that had to be killed or relocated from 33 black bears and 4 grizzly bears a year in the 1960s to 0.4 black bears and 0.1 grizzly bears in the 2000s. (Source: Yellowstone Park Foundation)
The park service has had to educate both bears and people in this respect. I have visited Yellowstone several times and my last visit a few years ago I camped in the park. I was impressed by how stringent the bear safety rules were — for example, campers were advised not to keep or sleep with anything in their tents accept their sleeping bags and clothes, to keep anything with a strong scent (food and toiletries) locked in a vehicle or a bear-proof locker (a metal box found near most campsites), trashcans were designed to keep bears out, and there were enclosed spaces with sinks for washing utensils and dishes. It made an impact on me and now I find myself practicing bear-safe camping even in places I know bears don’t live.
The following animated short, In the Bag, featuring Humphrey the Bear was produced by Disney in 1955. Several film shorts featuring the Brownstone bears were shown as part of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color series that has run from the mid1950s until present day (although under different titles).
Please watch this video and enjoy it (it certainly makes me smile) and don’t blame me if you start dancing around or get the tune stuck in your head! However, do think about many of the ideas concerning nature, culture, wilderness, wildlife and park management that we have been discussing in the last few weeks and how it intersects with this video. Just what is Disney saying about the role of National Parks and how we should take care of them? We’ll watch this again as a group in class and talk about it in detail.
In case you might be wondering what you should actually do should you see a bear, click here to watch a video, “Hike the Smokies,” produced by the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.