The History of Bears in Yellowstone

Did you know there is a “Bear-Muda Triangle” in Yellowstone?   

This intriguing area is around Tower Junction, at the intersection of the road leading to the Park’s northern entrance at Gardiner, Montana, and the route traverses the Park from east to west. Positioned near the junction of the Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth-Tower roads, this region is famous for its bear activity, hosting both grizzly bears and the more commonly seen black bears. Yellowstone National Park is one of the few places in the United States where black bears coexist with grizzly bears, making it a unique and fascinating destination for wildlife enthusiasts.  

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) once ruled vast expanses of North America, from the wide-open plains to the rugged cliffs of California, stretching from central Mexico to the wilds of Alaska and Canada. These majestic creatures had massive territories, with females roaming areas as large as 884 km (about 549.29 mi) ² and males covering an impressive 3,757 km (about 2334.49 mi) ². However, the grizzlies’ dominion has dramatically shrunk over the years, occupying just a tiny fragment of their former range. Humans have played a significant role in this drastic reduction, wiping out an astonishing 98% of their habitat and numbers through land development, livestock protection, hunting, and fears for human safety, leading to their classification as a threatened species. In the early 1800s, more than 50,000 grizzlies roamed the lower 48 states. By 1975, that number had plummeted to less than 1,000. 

Yellowstone grizzly bear with cub

Adam Brubaker – Tied to Nature

During the early part of the 20th century, the management of grizzly bears received little attention within Wyoming, where Yellowstone resides. As far back as 1899, the Game and Fish Law of Wyoming did not mention grizzlies in its management strategies. However, in 1903, the State Game and Warden Report stated that it would be a misdemeanor to hunt, trap, or kill grizzly bears within any National Forest Reserves in Wyoming, except during open game season. Unless otherwise posted, hunting season for grizzlies corresponded with elk and deer hunting season, so residents and non-residents with elk/deer licenses could also kill one bear. In 1937, grizzly bears were classified as game animals in most national forests or considered predators in the remainder of the state. Hunters could take predatory animals at any time and by most means, whereas game animals could be hunted with dogs or trapped, but only with the approval of the game warden.  

As the population of grizzly bears declined rapidly, the situation reached a critical point in the 1960s. Until 1968, people in Wyoming freely hunted grizzlies. However, starting in 1970, only a few hunting licenses were issued in Park and Teton counties until 1974. Hunters were not required before 1969 to report their grizzly kills, resulting in incomplete data for those years. Mandatory reporting began in 1970, providing more accurate records. During the four years from 1970 to 1974, the annual number of bears hunted ranged from three to eight. Hunting permits decreased significantly from 30 in 1970 to just 12 in 1974. Legal sport hunting of grizzlies was entirely banned in 1975. 

Adam Brubaker – Tied to Nature

Recognizing the necessity for change, Yellowstone pursued an innovative solution: humans must alter their relationship with bears. Interacting with them became the initial step towards fostering compassion and reducing fear, allowing the bears to adapt to their conquerors rather than serving as victims or trophies of the conquest.   

During the 1920s, Yellowstone offered visitors a unique experience at Mammoth: a zoo where they could meet Gyp, a bear likely named after Doctor Dolittle’s dog. Acting as a bridge between the wild and the tame, Gyp mirrored the Park’s broader mission. Another notable celebrity of Yellowstone’s then was Jesse James. This adventurous bear would boldly step into the path of oncoming cars, standing on its hind legs to stage a playful “hold-up” in exchange for treats. Even Yellowstone’s Superintendent George Anderson had a bear outside his home at Mammoth Hot Springs.  

In the 1930s, bear-feeding shows became a spectacle. At Otter Creek, close to Canyon Village, hotel garbage was dumped on a big feeding platform every day at certain times. Up to 250 folks could sit on bleachers on the hillside and watch up to 70 hungry bears eat. These shows and smaller ones near Old Faithful and Lake Hotel were always packed. Over 600 cars parked at Otter Creek’s lot just for the show! 

Yellowstone 1932 show of bears

NPS History Collection – 1932

But this bear-people mingling wasn’t as charming as it seemed. It led to risky encounters from this event and a junk food diet for the bears. The Park initiated an intensive bear management program during World War II. The Park took advantage of the low visitation to close its bear-feeding shows and encourage grizzly and black bears to return to natural food sources. Rangers also asked visitors to stop feeding the bears in their cars.   

However, tourists still wanted their kids to have a similar exotic experience, so this process took time to implement. Even until the beginning of the 1960s, you’d probably have seen bears relaxing near roadsides, close to your car, or wandering through your campsite, not far from your tent, looking for food. Using popular cartooned characters at that time, Yellowstone placed signs to help halt these moments as bears continued to “hold up” and cause traffic. In 1970, Yellowstone decided to promote a healthier lifestyle for its bears, which still applies today, by entirely banning feeding bears and setting up bearproof garbage containers.   

Yellowstone Yogi sign for kids

(NPS History Collection – 1961)

It has taken time for the bears to return to their natural habits. In Yellowstone alone, eradication from hunting, feeding garbage, being cut off from this known food supply, and being picked off from ill-ended human interactions caused a significant decline in their numbers. They have grown slowly but now tend to avoid the well-known tourist areas.    

Come have a safe and distanced bear encounter with me in their natural habitat. Book your adventure today at Tied to Nature.

Bears need your respect, not your snacks. Find out more about Bear Management here.  

Bear and cub looking at horizon in yellowstone

(Adam Brubaker – Tied to Nature)












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