Parks Service's view of interacting with bears changes with the times

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Sometime this year, take a moment to say "happy birthday" to the National Parks Service. It's turning 100 years old in August. And my, how some things have changed in that century.

Take, for example, how the parks deal with bears.

Today, the Park Service characterizes the possibility of seeing live bears — black, grizzly or polar in dozens of parks across the country — as a very special, but far from guaranteed, experience. It reminds park visitors that bears are wild animals, and it directs them to follow "bear etiquette." That code of conduct includes the following exhortations:

• Respect a bear's space.

• Never approach, crowd, pursue or displace bears.

• Let bears eat their natural foods.

It was not always so, as seen in the accompanying photos. In the early 20th century, according to Rachel Mazur's book, "Speaking of Bears," bear-feeding spectacles were major attractions.

In Sequoia National Park, managers noticed that bears foraged nightly at a garbage dump inside the park, and they knew a tourist draw when they saw one. So they moved the trash pit to a more central location and called it "Bear Hill." Bleachers were set up so that hundreds of visitors, separated from the bears by only a short barrier, could watch as many as 30 of the animals dine each evening. ("There were a lot of injuries during those years, but it was before society became litigious," Mazur wrote.)

Visitors to Yosemite National Park could see bears eat on a specially constructed platform that was illuminated by floodlights at night. Several other parks also had bear pits, Mazur wrote, and future President Gerald Ford worked for a time as an armed guard on a bear-feeding truck at Yellowstone National Park. By the 1930s, calls to stop feeding the bears grew as the trash-nourished population swelled and more human-bear run-ins occurred. But it would take decades — and many killings of "nuisance bears" — for the Park Service to arrive at its current view that it is best to stay out of bears' way and lock human food in bear-proof containers.

Karin Brulliard is a reporter for the Animalia blog.


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