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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
A Grizzly Bear Success Story
What follows is the story of how Yellowstone Park--once the center of human-bear conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone--largely solved its problems. The Park provides an example of what can be done to coexist with the grizzly bear.
Key ingredients to their success included:
Commitment to make human food and garbage unavailable to bears
Effective public education efforts
Adoption of new rules that prohibited the feeding of bears or leaving attractants available to them
Adequate law enforcement.
After its creation in 1872, Yellowstone National Park’s (YNP) popular appeal led to increasing numbers of visitors and, with that, the increasing availability of human foods and garbage.
Which led to a growing number of human-bear conflicts. Many bears learned to take advantage of human food and refuse, lost wariness of people—and eventually became “problem bears”. Bear-caused injuries and property damage increased as a result.
As Yellowstone visitation rose from 1931 to 1959, bear-caused injuries reached an all-time high of roughly 48 people per year. Mounting concerns over human safety and property damage led to the creation of a National Park Service bear management program in 1960. Even so, management efforts from 1960 to 1969 were rather informal and largely targeted individual bears, including relocation and removal. Early efforts placed minimal emphasis on visitor education and reducing the availability of attractants, and resulted in only slight reductions in bear-caused injuries.
With an improved understanding of bear behavior and ecology, YNP officials moved to reduce the influence of human food on bears while returning bears to a more natural diet. New regulations prohibited the feeding of bears and required the proper storage of human foods, bear-proofing garbage cans, closing garbage dumps within and adjacent to the Park, and increasing emphasis on visitor education. Bear-human conflicts decreased despite dramatic increases in visitation. Unfortunately, a huge increase in bear mortalities was also precipitated by the abrupt closures of the dumps.
Management efforts increased again in 1983, placing greater emphasis on grizzly bear habitat protection. This change occurred in response to the shift from conflicts near roads and human developments (where incidents had essentially been eliminated) to the backcountry. In response, some areas were closed seasonally to hiking and overnight camping. Around this time, concerns about the grizzly bear’s population viability were growing as the population continued to decline, with females dropping to as few as perhaps 47 reproducing individuals.
As time went on, Yellowstone Park changed its approach to managing bears that frequented roadsides. Instead of moving or hazing grizzly bears away from roads, the National Park Service deployed rangers to minimize visitor conflicts with them. This allowed more females that were used to roads to produce and raise their cubs. This policy has effectively expanded habitat for grizzly bears, as more bears can survive near roads. The policy has also enriched the experience of countless park visitors who otherwise would have little chance of seeing a grizzly bear in the wild.
In the years since these policies were adopted, the number of injuries caused by bears has plummeted from an average of 45 per years to an average of less than one per year, despite annual visitation topping three million people. This dramatic drop in conflicts and resulting bear deaths is a tribute to Yellowstone’s bear management program, and provides a model for successful food management and public education in other grizzly bear habitat.
The long-term survival of bears and other wildlife depends upon other government agencies following the National Park Service’s example, by tackling remaining problems caused by the availability of human foods and garbage, and sharing that habitat that remains.
Gunther, Kerry A. Bear Management in Yellowstone National Park, 1960-1993. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 9(1):549-560.
Gunther, Kerry A., and Hopi E. Hoekstra. Bear-Inflicted Human Injuries in Yellowstone National Park, 1970-1994. Ursus 10:377-384