No More Lunch Counter for Yellowstone Bears

Today, it would be unheard of for people to intentionally feed bears but in the early 1900s it was common practice.

In the early years of Yellowstone National Park, garbage disposal was a huge problem. While today’s visitors have their garbage hauled far away from the park, it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, Yellowstone still operated a garbage dump in the park until 1970, when the last of the dumps was closed and all garbage trucked far away. One of the main reasons for closing the dumps was bears.

Bears are opportunists. Biologists call them omnivores, because bears can eat pretty much anything. And garbage contains pretty much everything.

Today, it would be unheard of for people to intentionally feed bears, but the history of Yellowstone National Park shows that in the 1900s, the philosophy was much different, especially in the first half of that century. From about 1890 until World War II, visitors to Yellowstone National Park were entertained by nightly “bear shows.”

As dusk fell across Yellowstone, both black and grizzly bears would amble slowly out of the nearby woods and head straight for the garbage heap. To accommodate the human visitors, the park constructed seating, including wooden bleachers. An occasional park ranger, mounted on a brave horse, would often ride into view and give an educational talk about bears, while in the background, both black and grizzly bears fought over a particularly choice piece of bacon rind.

Garbage Dump for Bear Show
Garbage Dump for Bear ShowPublic Domain

The bear shows were immensely popular; so popular that automobile parking during the heyday of the bear shows was an issue. It was popular for the bears, too. In 1920, there were an estimated 40 grizzly bears at bear dumps, and that number grew to over 250 a decade later.

It was a recipe for disaster. Today, we call this habituation-having bears used to human food sources. The closer bears are to people, and the more comfortable they are around people and vice versa, the more injuries to bears and humans occur. Problem bears tore up vehicles. They scared people and, occasionally, they injured and even killed people.

When World War II rolled around, the National Park Service took advantage of the low turnout during the war years and closed the public viewing of bears at the dumps. But still, the park service hauled garbage to dumps inside the park. The last of the park’s dumps, the Trout Creek dump, was closed in 1970, ending eight decades of fed bears.

Today, wildlife and park managers urge special caution in bear country. No food items can be kept anywhere near a bear, and anyone who violates such a law is punished with stiff fines. And, today, bears are much more like bears-they are wild and eat wild foods. Today, the claim of a park service report has finally come true: “The sight of one bear under natural conditions is more stimulating than close association with dozens of bears.”

Each year, some lucky park visitors agree with that statement when they catch a glimpse of a wild grizzly on Sylvan Pass, or a black bear in the Lamar Valley.

Feeding the Bears – A Trip Down Memory Lane
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