The National Park Service's management of bears in the park has evolved dramatically.

Share story

Looking for bison in Yellowstone National Park? No challenge. There are thousands of them. Bears? Not so easy to see anymore.

When I was 7, the last time I visited, people still fed bears from their cars, and rangers looked the other way. A black bear smudged its nose on the window of my family’s 1957 Chevy and us kids spent weeks renewing the smudge with a little spit in hopes of prolonging the prestige.

The park’s philosophy toward bears took a dramatic turnaround in 1970, I learned on a guided hike of Yellowstone’s Canyon area with Ranger Steve Cook. (Free ranger-led hikes are a great source of education about the park.)

At one point Cook asked our group to look at the trail and see what we found that was unusual. There were shards of old crockery. It wasn’t a Native American archaeological site. It was the site of a trash dump for nearby hotels and tourist camps from the early 20th century.

In those days, park staff and concessionaires treated bears like a circus attraction, and dumps played a part.

“They erected grandstands here, to see bears feeding at the dump, and the grizzlies all came,” Cook said. “A couple folks stood by with high-powered rifles in case anything went wrong, but it never did, because the bears were far more interested in the dinner at hand.”

It helped inspire the Yogi Bear cartoons, based in “Jellystone Park.”

But over the decades, park officials realized, Yellowstone bears were losing the knowledge of how to feed themselves, and had became reliant on handouts and begging. It wasn’t healthy for the bears or for the public, who tended to forget these were still wild animals with big teeth and claws, sometimes unpredictable.

In 1970, the park closed the trash dumps, cracked down on roadside feeding and enforced rules about securing trash and food.

The park’s bear population plummeted. But it has rebounded, with about 730 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and a healthy, growing population of black bears. You just don’t see them in campgrounds or begging on roadsides very often.

Today, rules are strict. Each time I’ve checked into a campground I’ve gotten “the bear talk.” On every picnic table in every campground is a placard reciting all the things that mustn’t be left outside or in a tent “unless they are in immediate use.” It’s draconian in its thoroughness: no ice chests, no stoves, no water containers “new, clean, dirty, empty or full.” No cosmetics or toiletries. No dirty dish water (which makes you think these bears must really be hard up). Nothing with any kind of interesting scent or that a bear might possibly conceive might contain his or her next meal. If you’re in a tent and have no car in which to stow your food, there are bear lockers.

Poor old Yogi will find no picnic baskets to steal in this modern park.

COMING UP: On readers’ advice, I’m heading out early tomorrow to the Lamar Valley to look for wolves and bears.