Yellowstone Bear Jams on Roads

When Yellowstone National Park visitors behave appropriately around roadside bears it's a positive experience for both bears and people.
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When Yellowstone National Park visitors behave appropriately around roadside bears it's a positive experience for both bears and people.
Black bear crossing the road in Yellowstone. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco.

Black bear crossing the road in Yellowstone. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco.

We think visitors should have to take a short exercise called "Bear-Jam 101" upon entering Yellowstone National Park.

Those of us who live and work in Yellowstone country have seen it all too often. Traffic jams in Yellowstone. Cars and RVs lined up for miles. And no, I'm not talking about the long wait you might have for road construction. I'm not talking about a traffic jam like those from the city experience during rush hour. Sure, three million people annually visit the world's oldest national park - and most during a 3-month period. But Yellowstone Park is a big place; even during July there's enough country and enough to see that true traffic jams seldom occur.

What I'm talking about are "Bear-Jams"

We're in our 10th year of publishing the Yellowstone Journal. Every year we make several trips to the park to interview biologists and re-stock newsstands. Come June, my husband, a schoolteacher during most of the year, becomes the Yellowstone Journal's "paper boy." Jerry spends thousands of miles and hundreds of hours inside Yellowstone Park each summer.

He has been caught in many traffic jams while traveling the park's roads. Sometimes he's required to stop, suddenly, for a family of visitors to exit its vehicle and take photos of adorable chipmunks. (Even Yellowstone's chipmunks are the cutest in the world - and worth some film.)

Other times it's a 1-ton, shaggy and unpredictable bison lollygagging across the road, causing cars to stop and wait.

On occasion, one gets lucky, and it's a Bear-Jam. I say lucky because it's a rare delight to see a grizzly or black bear in Yellowstone.

Jerry's dad, Harlan, had a great friend named Fred Pfeiffer. Fred used to visit Yellowstone back in the garbage-feeding days, when bears would congregate at the main attractions to consume large quantities of garbage to the visitors' delight. Visitors during those days had a front row seat to The Bear Show.

The garbage feeding ended in the early 1970s and now Yellowstone's bears eat what they're meant to eat - white bark pine nuts, moths, ground squirrels and small mammals.

But when we first started the magazine, Fred would travel with Jerry's dad to visit us in Wyoming, and we'd take them to Yellowstone Park. Fred often wondered, aloud, "Where did all the bears go?"

Fred passed away last year. It's too bad he's not alive to visit Yellowstone now because in recent years bears have become more visible.

In fact, between 1979 and 2002, some 31,000 bear sightings were reported inside Yellowstone Park. And although bears still prefer not to be around heavily populated areas, they will go where the natural food is, which is often riparian road habitat, looking for wild foods.

Bears are Becoming a Roadside Attraction

In 2002 alone, there were over 700 bear jams inside Yellowstone, says Kerry Gunther, bear management specialist in the park.

Bear jams, although they afford visitors an exciting opportunity to view one of the most intriguing wild animals in the world, cause stress to the bears, and tempt people to do things that aren't natural or safe.

It's illegal to approach within 100 yards of a bear in Yellowstone, and yet it's common to see families getting too close to a bear when stopped in a bear-jam. People excitedly park their cars, sometimes on a blind corner in the road, or in the middle of the road, and rush over to get the photo they've always wished for, or to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary animal in the wild.

On June 10 of this year, three park visitors were seriously injured during a bear jam. As they were watching two black bears eating in a meadow near Calcite Springs, about one mile from Tower Junction, a vehicle struck them.

Several visitors had stopped to view the bears, parking their vehicles on one side of the road and crossing to the other side for a better view of the bears. Suddenly, an unattended white Chrysler PT Cruiser rolled away from its parked position, crossed both lanes of traffic and plowed into the crowd. The car continued down a10-foot embankment and knocked down a seven-year-old girl. The unoccupied runaway vehicle also struck two other victims, an 11-year-old and an older male.

Come on folks!

We aren't "city folk." We like the fact that when we're making a wrong move or going down a one-way in the wrong direction in Denver or Salt Lake that people roll their eyes but quickly forgive us when they see our Wyoming license plate. It's as if they let us drive poorly because we're from out on the frontier.

Although we appreciate this and would like to reciprocate, where would we draw the line in a place like Yellowstone Park - where all 50 states and several countries are represented? And besides, as Jerry reminds me, even locals get excited when they see a bear.

"When you see a grizzly bear by the road, it's like an endorphin kicks in and you lose your logic," he explains. "It's so exciting that your first reaction is to stop and watch it, regardless of where you are or what's happening around you."

Obviously, though, such behavior is unacceptable. We have to at least do our minimum part, for both the safety of others and for the bears.

Bear biologists and park naturalists in Yellowstone are often patrolling bear-jams instead of studying bears and conducting research in the field. They're reminding visitors to use their parking brakes.

Still, Günter says it's good that bears are becoming more visible.

These bears have learned to live with the more than three million people that visit Yellowstone National Park annually. Park visitors gain better opportunities to observe, photograph, and learn about bear behavior from roadside bears.

"If Park visitors can behave appropriately around roadside bears, it can be a positive experience for both bears and people," he says.

Bear Safety Precautions:

  1. Park in established pullouts only. Do not park in the road. Parking in the road can contribute to vehicle collisions. Engage your parking break.
  2. Observe and photograph Yellowstone bears from the safety of your car. Standing in the road increases the risks of being hit by a vehicle. In addition, although bears are omnivores, a significant proportion of their diet in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is meat. There is no guarantee of your safety. Bears occasionally injure, kill, and consume humans. Leaving the safety of your car while bears are nearby increases the risks of being injured by a bear.
  3. Do not feed bears or any wildlife. Bears need your concern, not your food. Bears and other wildlife that become conditioned to human foods have to be destroyed by wildlife managers due to the dangers they pose to human safety.
  4. Obey all traffic laws and posted speed limits. On average, over 100 large mammals from elk to grizzly bears are hit and killed by vehicles each year. Speed is often a contributing factor in these animal deaths.
  5. It is against the law to approach within 100 yards of bears.
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