In 1902, Yellowstone National Park game warden C.J. “Buffalo” Jones had a unique way of trying to get black bears to stop raiding campers’ larders and annoying workers — he’d snare the bears on garbage heaps, hoist them aloft by a hind leg and give the bear “a severe chastisement” with a “smart willow switch.”

“This new method of treatment rather caught the bears unawares and appeared to break their spirit for to be detained against their will is a disgrace to wild creatures and they remember their punishment all their lives and teach their offspring to beware, being sure that every men’s hand contains a willow switch and a rope,” Jones wrote of the technique.

The method of attempting to haze bears away from public areas inside Yellowstone National Park is recounted in the recent issue of the journal Yellowstone Science. Although Jones was eventually told to stop his unusual technique, and shortly thereafter quit, the park has continued to struggle with the best ways to keep bears and humans separate to ensure the survival and safety of both.

Early days

Keeping humans and bears apart was not easy early in the park’s history because visitors wanted to see the bears. Motel managers, and even the park’s staff, were happy to oblige. They encouraged the bears to show themselves by dumping garbage in certain spots and setting up bleachers nearby for tourists to watch and photograph the bears.

It wasn’t until 1970 that park management decided such practices were unhealthy for bears, and the dumps were banned. Since then, the park’s staff has taken measures to keep bears away from human food, such as bear-proof garbage cans. The idea is straightforward: A bear that sees humans as a source of food is a bear that can injure those same campers and tourists.

The change in ideology is reflected in park statistics. The 1930s, '40s and '60s were peaks for grizzly bear-inflicted injuries to humans. In those three decades the rate of injuries ranged from 1.8 to 2 per million visitors. In the 1970s that dropped to about 0.7 injuries per million and during the next 35 years averaged one injury every 18 years.

This decline in human-grizzly bear conflicts took place despite an increasing population of grizzly bears in the park.

Although visitors to Yellowstone may fear a bear attack, in the park’s 143-year history only six people have been killed by a grizzly. People are more likely to die from drowning (119) or falling (36). Only being struck by lightning and dying, which has happened to five people, is less common than a grizzly attack.

Spray compliance

To prevent individual bear encounters, the park encourages visitors to carry bear spray, a proven bear deterrent. Park literature handed out to visitors and talks by rangers also emphasize the importance of traveling in groups of at least three people, making noise in areas with thick growth to avoid surprising bears on trails and not running when encountering bears.

Yet a survey of more than 8,000 park visitors between 2011 and 2014 showed few tourists seemed to be getting the message.

Overnight backpacking parties had the highest level of compliance with YNP’s bear spray recommendation,” wrote Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear manager, in a Yellowstone Science article. “Fifty-two percent of backpackers carried bear spray.”

The article attributes the high compliance rate of backpackers to the information given face-to-face by the ranger who issues their backcountry camping permit. Receiving information from a human carries more weight than a message conveyed via written handouts or signs.

People hiking along boardwalks were the least compliant with the park’s bear spray and groups-of-three messages. Although those travelers may feel safer on the developed routes, there has been one instance of a bear attack on a boardwalk and one near a boardwalk in Yellowstone.

Handling people

With humans so difficult to manage, it would seem the park might have a better chance at working to give bears a fear of humans, such as warden Buffalo Jones had tried to do in the early 1900s. Such aversive conditioning hasn’t been entirely abandoned.

In the 1980s the park developed what it called a “Bear Thumper Gun” that fired 1 ¼-inch by 3-inch plastic bottles filled with water. The 602 grain projectiles delivered 300 foot pounds of energy. The gun’s downfall was that it was only effective at a range of about 20 to 25 yards. Bears quickly learned the gun’s limitations and stayed at least 30 yards away from rangers deploying the firearm.

“Grizzly bears have shown remarkable resilience and tolerance in the face of ever-increasing human presence,” Gunther wrote in a separate article, flourishing despite a growing human presence in the park that has pushed annual visitation to more than 3 million people a year.

Some of Yellowstone’s grizzlies — because they are smart, adaptable and opportunistic — have learned “to ignore people after repeated, non-consequential encounters,” Gunther wrote.

In the 1970s, when Yellowstone altered its bear management, problem bears conditioned to seeing humans as a source of food were killed. By the 1980s that problem had largely ended, but following that, a growing population of black bears and grizzlies meant more bears were being seen feeding on natural foods in roadside meadows. The close proximity of the bears caused what’s commonly known now as “bear jams,” lines of vehicles alongside the road near the bears so tourists could watch and photograph the huge predators.

Jam plans

At first, the park’s staff fearing human-bear encounters hazed the bears. But in the 1990s rangers decided to try and manage the people instead of the bears, keeping humans a safe distance away so they could still see the bears.

Between 1990 and 2014, the park’s staff recorded more than 4,500 grizzly bear and 7,600 black bear jams. In all of those incidents, not a single bear-caused injury to a human was reported. Instead, the analysis found humans were more likely to be hit by a car at the bear jams.

Although managing the humans seemed to be a better tactic for the park in terms of the bears, all of those jams required personnel to be present resulting in rangers and other staff racking up 2,500 to 3,000 personnel hours manning bear jams each year.

In response to increased bear jams in adjoining Grand Teton National Park, in 2008 a volunteer force that worked with paid staff was formed to manage the bear jams. The group was named the Wildlife Brigade.

“While the Wildlife Brigade Program has been considered a success, maintaining this level of commitment now and into the future requires substantial financial support,” Gunther wrote.

The need for such support will likely grow, too, if visitation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks continues its upward climb and bear numbers remain stable or grow.

“To be successful, strategies need to consider not only human and bear safety, but also the energetic needs and nutritional state of habituated bears, their contribution to bear population viability, the aesthetic value of public bear viewing and the conservation awareness this brings, and the economic value of bear viewing to gateway communities,” Gunther wrote.

Such considerations and issues facing bear managers in Yellowstone today are much different than those tackled by wardens like Buffalo Jones more than 100 years ago. Yet the basic concept is still the same, keeping the bears and humans apart and therefore safe.

To do that, Gunther sees an increased role for education and bear jam traffic controllers in the parks.

“The most formidable challenge for managing habituated bears in national parks is not managing the bears, but in sustaining and expanding the people management programs that have made habituated bear management a success in the parks to date,” he wrote.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.