Yellowstone: Bison and beavers and bears
I remember visiting Yellowstone in second or third grade, a rare and wonderful trip with my grandparents in their trailer, tromping on the boardwalks past bubbling, smelly hot pools of who-knew-what, perching on the castle-like stone walls to feed chipmunks, watching Old Faithful spew out of a hole in the ground.
My sister and I loved the Morning Glory Pool, a beautiful azure hot spring in the shape of the delicate flower, and Nancy got a charm of it for her bracelet, silver with a clear-blue center.
But mostly I remember the bears. They were everywhere. Even in the campground. I remember one pawing at the toe of my tennis shoe, begging for a handout.
I used to wonder at the memory, thinking I must have been wrong. Surely, there were no bears roaming the campground. Surely, no one would have gotten that close to them. Surely, my parents and grandparents wouldn’t have led me to the slaughter like that.
But Ranger Mike Hassall set me straight.
In the 1960s, the Yellowstone bears would hang out by the road, and people would feed them marshmallows and sandwiches from car windows. The park would dump all the garbage where bears could get to it, and even set up bleachers for visitors to watch them paw through it each night. They would roam through campgrounds poking through the trashcans and begging from campers.
“What the hell?” I thought, only hell wasn’t the word going through my brain. How could those trusted to raise me have put me in claw’s length of a bear? A freakin’ bear, for god’s sake. What could possibly go wrong?
I have a bear paranoia that no rational argument can ease, and I have rarely been able to camp in a tent because I’m so sure I can hear bears breathing just outside the nylon fabric. Now, I know why. They tried to feed me to one.
Perhaps because of that early trip to Yellowstone, I became fascinated with bear attacks while still in grade school and read every article and book I could find on the subject, including gory details about teenagers running, trying to climb trees, being clawed, bitten and drug to death. They weren’t pretty pictures, and they remain vivid in my mind. To this day, I point out to my husband, Tom, any story on bears killing people.
When we went to Yellowstone, I tripped down memory lane. We visited the Morning Glory Pool, which, sadly, is less brilliant because debris and coins thrown in by visitors have blocked the opening, cooling the water and changing the environment enough that the organisms that create the color are altered.
We tromped across the boardwalks, past bubbling, smelly hot pools that we learned change all the time.
One evening, we watched Old Faithful erupt under lightning and thunder. Rain, then hail, fell on us.
And we hiked, my bear radar on full alert.
On our first outing, Beaver Pond Trail, teen boys coming the other way passed us about a mile in.
“There’s a bear up ahead, about 15 minutes or so,” one of them said, excitedly. “So you might be able to see a bear.”
“Well, there’s two bears, actually,” his friend said, also like it was a good thing.
Tom insisted they were probably gone, and said he wanted to see the beaver pond. I insisted he had no idea where the bears were, and said I wanted to see another day and my only son again.
So we turned around and headed back the way we came.
The whole bear thing in Yellowstone is different now. There are new rules, new procedures. Sensible minds have prevailed.
Ranger Mike said that the bears became so dependent on human food that they forgot how to hunt. And in the ’70s, people were wising up to the whole human/bear intermingling stuff and the possibility for poor visitor experience, say DEATH.
They argued about what to do, and despite objections from some respectable researchers, cut the bears off cold turkey. They made the garbage dump into a reverse prison, designed not to keep anyone in, but to keep the bears out. They installed bear-proof trashcans and moved them to the campground entrance, away from the tents and trailers. They began to educate visitors about not feeding wild beasts.
The first year, a huge number of the bears died, starved to death, unable to forage for their own food. But then they started coming back, and now there are more than 350 grizzlies and more than 500 black bears. Ranger Mike says they are descendants of the smarter, more resourceful bears.
Today, at every campground check-in and every ranger talk, you hear the rules. Nothing with any scent, food, toothpaste, deodorant, can be left outside or in a tent. Every bit must be kept in a hard-sided vehicle. Even water bottles. No washing dishes or pots by the water spigots, or brushing your teeth there. Park employees regularly patrol the campground and gather anything left out.
There are bears, sometimes in or near the campground, but they are not encouraged, and visitors are told not to approach them and to stay in their vehicles.
If you hike, you are told to go in groups of three or more. There has never been a fatal bear attack on a group of four or more people in Yellowstone. You are told to carry bear spray and when and how to use it. Bear bells, I learned, are not good. They are an odd sound that makes bears curious. Something the people who sold them to me might have mentioned. Instead, Ranger Mike said, talk, sing, clap your hands, or make other human noises. Bears don’t want to see you and will get out of the area.
The changes from the 1960s to the 2000s? Injuries from bears decreased from 45 per year to 1 per year. Bears killed or removed from the Park because of human interaction decreased from 33 black bears and 4 grizzlies per year to an average of 0.4 black bear and 0.1 grizzly bear per year.
The most dangerous situation is a mother bear with cubs. They are involved in most of the fatal attacks. So, if you see cubs, gut the hell out of the way. Or if you see a bison or elk carcass. Bears will protect their food.
A lot of bison and elk die during Yellowstone’s harsh winter, and are revealed as the snow melts. Bears love the massive popsicles. And the rangers spend a lot of time hauling the dead animals further into the backcountry away from hiking trails to avoid unpleasant encounters.
Ranger Mike said that when he and his ranger buddies go hiking, there are never fewer than four of them, each looking like Mexican bandaleros with up to five bear sprays velcroed to a strap across their chests.
Still, he’s more frightened of the Park’s 4,000 bison, which he calls bulldozers with tiny brains. Two visitors already have been gored when they got too close.
“They’re just fine, until they’re not,” Ranger Mike said. “Then they’re heading for you at 35 miles per hour.”
For a lot of people, seeing a bear would be a highlight of their trip to Yellowstone. For me, not seeing one is a gift. Although I wouldn’t mind getting a nice photo of one from the front seat of The Epic Van.