Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday photo

American Black Bear. Yellowstone National Park, June 2004.

Here's a little black bear that I found browsing the road side near Abiathar Peak one day. Although I kept all the commotion out of the photograph, the bear was nearly surrounded by a crowd of tourists and parked cars. However, he paid them no mind and I almost have to admire how well he maintained his concentration with all the ruckus going on. A true Zen master.

How different his behavior would have been fifty years ago! Bears didn't ignore cars then; they sought them out, like a child chasing an ice cream truck. Cars meant handouts of food and the best thing to do with one was to stand up and stick your nose through the window. If there was anything in Yellowstone more iconic than Old Faithful, it was the begging bears along the roads.

By the time the National Park Service arrived in Yellowstone (in 1916) to take over management, there was a long history of feeding bears to provide entertainment to tourists. Fenced-in feeding areas, some of them even equipped with grandstands, were common in the campgrounds, and shows were scheduled every evening. Tourists could check out the schedule; the bears had it memorized.

The new NPS regime didn't change anything right away. Horace Albright, the Superintendent through the 1920's, had been one of the principle men fighting to establish the Park Service and had long experience in defending the national parks from ranchers, miners, loggers, and their allies in Congress (mostly scrupulous, although not entirely, Albright was undoubtedly one of the great bureaucratic operatives of his day).

With that kind of experience, Albright was keen to make the parks as visitor-friendly as he could, albeit without compromising their natural values. He would have nixed carnival rides, but he saw nothing wrong with allowing, or encouraging, the animals to entertain the tourists. In fact, he was known to stage buffalo stampedes for VIP's. Oh, that's him on the left, smiling as the bears crawl over his table and eat off the plates.

By the time Albright left the Park Service in 1933, attitudes were changing about what was "natural" or appropriate in a national park. Younger wildlife managers wanted to see more natural behavior, more natural processes, to rewild the parks which -- wild as they appeared to a city slicker -- seemed uncomfortably carnival-like to the younger mindset.

Rewilding the bears took years - decades, even. The campground feeding shows ended after 1942, but the bears were still everywhere. They didn't fear the humans, nor did the humans fear them(keep in mind, we're talking about black bears, not grizzlies). One elderly former "savage,"* a waitress at Old Faithful Lodge in 1950, told me there were bears all over Old Faithful in her day and insisted, "I was never afraid." She even swore to me that she once stepped on a bear while sneaking out the window of her dorm room one night to go drinking in West Yellowstone.

Nothing like that happens today. In six seasons at Old Faithful, I never saw a black bear strolling through the basin during the tourist season, not even on burger day in the EDR, when the aroma must have been detectable for miles. Intensive behavioral modification techniques -- mostly on the bears, but somewhat for the visitors, too (referred to, variously, as education or citations) -- brought an end to the era of begging bears. The bears of old would have been astonished at the young cub near Abiathar Peak, who had an entire line of cars all to himself and no idea what to do with them. Albright might have been reassured that tourists would still love his national parks, even without the beggars by the road.

* Park employees were known as savages, a term that came into use sometime before 1900 and persisted until about 1980. An entire Park vocabulary, often quite colorful, has regrettably disappeared. I may have to do a post on that someday, but in the meantime I'll leave you to puzzle out what stuffing dudes referred to.

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