Images of the West: Natural History

TODAY IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, many expert wildlife watchers and thousands of casual passers-by are routinely treated to the wonder of wild grizzly and black bears roaming, foraging, preying, mating, raising their young, and otherwise moving through their wild and unencumbered days in full sight of the public. The wildness of the scene is only enhanced by the wolves who have been restored and now share the Yellowstone landscape with the bears. It is a thrilling spectacle, all the more thrilling for those of us who remember when we and the bears of Yellowstone all lived lesser lives — the black bears panhandling for picnic leftovers along park roads while the grizzly bears (and some black bears) made themselves at home in the park’s numerous garbage dumps. Few of us would stand for such a compromise of the park’s wilderness values today.

And yet. And yet there are reasons to remember those earlier times, when Yellowstone National Park served the nation as an on-the-job-training center in bear management, as an incomparable natural history classroom, as a great theatre of the silly, and, just occasionally, as a setting for terrible tragedies when the bear-human enterprise went sensationally wrong. The following vignettes from those days capture some of the many moods of the old “Yellowstone bear show” that entertained generations of park visitors. We should remember those charming, awful and occasionally goofy times, if only to remind us of what we went through — the halting and diffuse process, full of misunderstandings, wrong turns and the occasional brilliant insight — to earn the wild Yellowstone bears that we treasure today.

Chapter 31  |  1919

Holdup Bears

Horace Albright

Local folklore has long held that the first roadside beggar bear in Yellowstone appeared a year or two after automobiles were allowed to enter the park in 1915. According to this tradition, a black bear cub, quickly named Jesse James, learned to beg at the road near West Thumb.

Actually, historical sources suggest that roadside begging started earlier, closer to 1900, intermittently here and there in the park. But it wasn’t until about 1918 or 1919 that beggar bears became a major visitor attraction. In the following brief report on Yellowstone bears, taken from the 1919 Annual Report of the Director of the National Park Service, Horace Albright (then Yellowstone superintendent) told of visitor persistence in feeding bears.

Bear-feeding regulations were irregularly enforced before the late 1960s, so roadside feeding, like the garbage dump feedgrounds, became a Yellowstone institution. As visitation increased in the 1920s and 1930s, no traffic problem was more common in the park than the great “bear jams,” where dozens of cars would be backed up, their occupants waiting their turn to photograph the bear and toss it something to eat.

THE GRIZZLY, BLACK, AND BROWN BEARS were plentiful and much in evidence throughout the park and attracted so much attention and were so much talked about that the few tourists who failed to see them felt disappointed. These bears were so mischievous that it was necessary to keep a night guard at Upper Basin, Lake Outlet, and Canyon to prevent damage to private automobiles and camps, and five had to be killed at Lake during the summer to prevent damage to property. One medium-sized grizzly was killed in September at Upper Geyser Basin in a fight with a larger grizzly.

In addition to the bears that made a habit of frequenting the regular camping places, garbage dumps were established within walking distance of Upper Basin and Canyon, where bears of all kinds congregated every evening just before dark, and it was a regular practice for people from the hotels and camps to go to see them. A wire was firmly stretched between trees and posts to keep people from going beyond the danger line, and a ranger was placed on duty with a rifle to protect them. This is one of the most interesting features of the park to the majority of tourists, but requires careful regulation.

But even more interesting than the bear dumps were a few clever bears, among them one or two families consisting of mother and cubs, that frequented the highway between Thumb and Lake Outlet and daily “held up” passing automobiles and begged for food. As a rule the tourists so held up were willing victims of the robbers, and most of them would risk being tried before the United States commissioner for violation of park regulations, which prohibit “approaching, molesting, or feeding the bears,” rather than turn a deaf ear to the appeals of the cubs for candy, peanuts, etc. This rule is the most difficult to enforce of all the park rules and regulations, as indicated by the fact that of 28 trials before the United States court during the past summer for violation of regulations not one was for this offense.

Chapter 33  |  1927

President coolidge and party commune with nature in Yellowstone Park

Edmund J. Sawyer

Presidential visits to Yellowstone have always been momentous events, and in Coolidge’s time the intersection of the presidential party and Yellowstone bears was inevitable. Here are two episodes as reported at the time in Yellowstone Nature Notes, the park’s naturalist newsletter.

ON THE TRIP TO THE CANYON a general halt was made for the purpose of getting acquainted with a black bear family, a mother and two cubs, that appeared on the road from Canyon Camp to Artist Point. It was clear that this family was thoroughly accustomed to tourists and their usual accommodating ways, however little familiar with Presidential parties. Mrs. Coolidge passed loaf sugar to the mother and cubs while a battery of cameramen and a number of still photographers shot the scene. As the bear family became rather closely surrounded by members of the party the mother showed a little anxiety and uneasiness. Yet, she and the cubs stayed about the car till the sugar supply gave out and until the stock of candy supplied by various members of the party was seriously drawn upon.

At the Canyon feeding ground, Mrs. Coolidge and son John watched grizzly bears dominate the scene:

She commented on the solicitude of the mother bears for their young, and on the actions of the black bears which were bent on approaching yet were clearly afraid of the larger and more powerful occupants of the stage. One large black bear, however, did come slowly to the feeding place and was allowed to remain; but it was evident that he was there strictly on his good behavior and his reputation for peace.

Once a black bear came under the railing which marks the limit to which tourists are allowed to approach the feeding ground; straight over the rows of log seats he came until a single row of tourists, who happened to be occupying a rear log, started to rise and leave. A Park Service man went between the tourists and the bear, the latter showed his gums in displeasure but slowly retired, not however, without seeing fit to leave by the longest route, which passed in front of Mrs. Coolidge, with the Service man still intervening. This was unquestionably one of those bears which unwise tourists have spoiled to the point where they easily become troublesome.

Scores of gulls and at least a dozen garrulous ravens kept just out of reach of the feeding bears, awaiting their turn; a flock of Brewer blackbirds, conscious of the quick start they are capable of making when alarmed or perhaps aware that their small size put them beyond the serious notice of the huge grizzlies, fed almost about the very feet of the bears. A few pipits alighted on the next log to the one occupied by Mrs. Coolidge; a red-tailed hawk passed over the feeding ground, putting the entire flock of gulls to momentary flight.

Not long before we left the feeding ground John Coolidge and a young man friend of his came along and shared in witnessing much of this rare wildlife scene. After perhaps an hour and a half of nearly continuous and motionless observation from her hard log seat, Mrs. Coolidge rose and the party walked back to the Canyon Hotel. Then, as I left, Mrs. Coolidge with a graciousness and kindness which are so characteristic, thanked me and assured me of the pleasure she had found in that visit to the bears’ feeding ground — quite as if my own delight were not enough in having conducted the President of the United States and First Lady of the Land to a spectacle which I believe they will long remember and cherish.

Chapter 34  |  1928

Juno Entertains

Park Naturalist Dorr G. Yeager

There may not have been a time between the 1890s and the 1930s when there was not at least one captive black bear on display somewhere in the park. Cubs, no doubt including some that had been orphaned for one reason or another, were as irresistible to early park staff and managers as they are to us today. By whatever means, young bears regularly came into the hands of the naturalists, who took full advantage of the opportunity to give the public a bear show.

The “government zoo” mentioned in the following article was at Mammoth Hot Springs, park headquarters, where over the years a variety of animals, sometimes injured ones that could no longer fend for themselves, were held and shown to the public. This story of the captive black bear “Juno” also appeared in Yellowstone Nature Notes.

SEVERAL TIMES IN THE PAST Nature Notes has mentioned the doings of Juno. It will be remembered that two bears, Juno and Pard, were presented to the Service during the summer of 1925 by Mrs. Reta Hamilton of Weippe, Idaho. A bear pit was built for them at the government zoo where they were a constant source of pleasure to the summer tourists. However, during the winter of 1926 Pard, evidently tired of civilization, betook himself to the “great open spaces.” He has not been seen since that time but Juno has found peace and lazy satisfaction in being fed and cared for. Every year he receives cake and other delicacies from his foster mother which he relishes with grunts of satisfaction.

During the past winter Juno has hibernated under the overturned box of an old government truck. Straw was thrown over his den and to all appearances he passed a contented winter. He came out of his box for the season early last month, and, far from possessing the characteristic thin and gaunt appearance, seems to be as fat, lazy and good natured as ever.

For a week during the first part of April Juno played host to another bear every evening. Ranger Edward J. Bruce reports that between 6:30 and 7 o’clock each evening a two year old black bear came from nowhere in particular and spent half an hour romping and playing with Juno. Mr. Bruce states that they played together like two dogs until dark and then the newcomer would withdraw from the scene. From the number of garbage cans which have been overturned nightly, however, it is not hard to ascertain to what vicinity the black bear withdraws.

Lately, however, the newcomer has seemed to have forsaken Juno and they have not been seen together for some time. Juno has evidently taken the loss of his friend philosophically, however, and when he is fed he receives his keeper with just as many good-natured grunts and puffs as before.

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