Yellowstone Owes Its Early Success To Public Bear Feeding

We know that feeding wild bears is a dangerous thing to do, because bears will always want more. We may have felt sorry for Yogi and Boo Boo when they’d steal a pic-a-nic basket and Mr. Ranger Sir would take it back, but that scenario in Jellystone Park just followed what was happening in the real Yellowstone National Park. In the early years of the public park, park employees drew tourists by making sure they saw bears. And they did that by feeding the inn’s garbage to the bears -every night!

Today, it's strange to think of having to sell the idea of Yellowstone to anyone. But back when the park first opened, it needed to justify itself. Here was an enormous swath of prime Western land, set aside only for pleasure and recreation, paid for with American tax dollars. It sank or swam based on public opinion. For it to survive, people had to come, and they had to have the kind of good time they couldn't get anywhere else.

The park's superintendents were busy building infrastructure in the institution's first few decades, fighting poachers, and encouraging trains to come near enough that visitors could actually visit. But things improved, and when conservationist Horace Albright took the helm in 1919, he began turning human-animal interaction into a deliberate priority. The National Park Service, he said, had “a duty to present wildlife as a spectacle” for parkgoers.

The feeding of the bears eventually turned into a bear show with a circus-like atmosphere. Dozens of wild bears ate and cavorted close to huge crowds of people. Read about those shows at Atlas Obscura.


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One summer I worked as Maintenance Director for a boy scout camp in the Adirondacks. I would "seed" our trash dump outside of camp with stuff the bears loved for the visiting parents. I advised them to stay in their cars. Bears can top out at 35 mph, I clocked one once. Not even Bolt could outrun one.
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Another attraction which doesn't fit the modern Yellowstone was the Firefall. Every night in summer, a stream of embers was pushed off the side of Glacier Point to make it look like a waterfall of fire.
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