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For mammals as notorious as the black bears and grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) are, and considering they earn the park upwards of $10 million in revenue every year via tourist viewing, they became borderline endangered in the 1970’s. Human involvement with bears was held responsible for their near extinction in the park.

Students, faculty, and community members gathered in a lecture hall in the Chemistry and Biochemistry building on Wednesday, Jan. 27 to listen to MSU alum Kerry Gunther speak about the history of bears in YNP over the last 150 years. Gunther has worked in Yellowstone for the last 37 years conducting grizzly bear research and is currently the Bear Management Biologist for the park.

Within 15 years of YNP being established in 1872, the presence of humans created worrisome effects on the bear population. Waste disposal soon became a problem since dumps existed within the park, unlike today where all the garbage is hauled outside of park boundaries. This generated problems for bears that were known to have a diet ranging from moths, geothermal soil, cutthroat trout, bison and, more recently, human trash. As odd as it sounds, dumps in the park became one of YNP’s main attractions.

 “Lunch counters” for bears were created throughout the park that invited tourists to come observe the bears chow down on human scraps. This strange sight brought in audiences of up to 3,000 people daily. By 1910, it was not unusual for guests to hand-feed black bears or for bears to join families on a picnic. As human interactions with bears increased, the number of bear-caused wounds spiked. From the 1930’s to the 1970’s, there was an average of 48 injuries per year. The National Park Service had a wake-up call in 1967 after what is known as the “Night of the Grizzlies,” when two women and one man were mauled by a grizzly bear during a night spent in Glacier National Park. 

Consequently, a new bear management initiative began in 1970. The goal of this initiative was to maintain viable bear populations while reintroducing bears to natural foods. The in-park dumps were closed abruptly. The bears who were unable to cope without human food were captured and relocated to remote backcountry areas. This hopeful initiative was found unsuccessful after the number of human fatalities increased while cub production and survival rates decreased. Subsequently, the grizzly bears who were once known for populating the park were listed as a Threatened Species in 1975. 

A modified plan slowly weaned bears off human cuisine. Troublesome bears were once again removed and occasionally killed if their aggressive behavior continued. As the number of problematic bears decreased, the overall population of bears began to approach their original numbers. Ever since, the population of bears in YNP, as well as their living range, has been continually growing. Gunther believes that, eventually, grizzly bears will be in our backyard here in Bozeman. 

For more information and a video on the history of bears in YNP visit https://montana.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nat08.living.eco.humimp.bearslunch/bears-lunch-counter/.

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