Most of the talk this past weekend at Yellowstone was centered around the death of Brian Matayoshi, a hiker who was mauled by a bear while on Wapiti Lake Trail on July 6th. His wife escaped with very minor injuries, and after an investigation of the incident, the park decided that the bear was acting in defense of its cubs and no action against the bear was needed. Though both of them had experience hiking in the backcountry, they failed to follow many of the guidelines provided by YNP (for example: carrying bear spray, hiking in groups of four or more, not running away from a bear).
It was a tragic event, and I don't wish to speak for the Matayoshis themselves, but I am surprised that it doesn't happen here more often (the death rate is around three per year), because many of the visitors to this park display a shocking ignorance of exactly where they are and how dangerous it is. It's as though the entrance fee and the appearance of a few people in uniform give them the impression that this isn't the wilderness, and it's OK to, say, throw a rock at a buffalo because it's blocking the road, or walk out onto the thin crust of a hydrothermal area to retrieve a hat, even though there are signs every hundred yards telling them not to. Or perhaps they know it's the wilderness, but stubbornly demand a sanitized version of that wilderness, one that conforms to their own schedule, and fits in the exact box that they have defined for what their experience should entail.
It may be poor form to relate anecdotes about bears and stupid people in the wake of a bear mauling, but it may also encourage people to learn a little more about the next national park they're vacationing to.
. o . o . o .
Take the Bear, Minus the Points
We're trying to get over to Canyon and traffic is at a complete standstill. Somewhere between a hundred and two hundred people are gathered by the side of the road, pointing and snapping photos. We get out of the truck and start to walk up the road. Craig recognizes a ranger and engages him in conversation.
"What's up, Dante?"
"Bear. In the woods over there... I think... yeah, you can still see him from here." He points into the woods a little ways, where a darkish-brown blob can be ambling amongst the trees. "He was probably fifty yards from the road when someone called it in. Looks like he's heading back into the woods."
"Excuse me, sir! Sir! Excuse me!" A really big woman barges up and inserts herself between Craig and Dante. "What's going on? I can't get through here with the traffic!"
"Ma'am, someone spotted a bear, and it's attracted a lot of attention from people driving by. He's heading back into the forest, though, so it should probably clear up before too long."
"A bear? Where? Kids! There's a bear over here!"
Dante once again points in the general direction of the bear. The kids run to the side of the road to see the bear. One of them announces that he's going into the woods to get a better look.
"Watch out for poison ivy!" calls out the mother, apparently believing that a plant that doesn't exist in Yellowstone presents more of a threat than the bear.
Dante is quick to intercede. "Hey-O, kids! Please stay near the road. We want everyone to stay clear of the bear for both your own safety and that of the bear, OK?"
The mother drifts from whiny to standoffish.
"Look how far away that bear is! It doesn't pose a threat to anyone!"
"Ma'am, any time we spot a bear we want to keep everyone at least a hundred yards away from the bear. We don't want anyone to get hurt."
"There's no way that bear would come anywhere near us! There must be a hundred people here! If it tried to attack us, it wouldn't have a prayer!"
Craig is intrigued. "Come again?"
"One bear against this many people? A bear would be crazy to try anything!"
"What if it did?"
"Well..." she says, rolling up her sleeve and clenching her fist like Rosie the Riveter, "I like our chances!"
. o . o . o .
The Oompa Loompas aren't there for your amusement, either
I've just finished using the bathroom and I'm heading for my truck when an young, amiable-looking couple stop me with an interesting question.
"Could you make a bear come out for us?"
"A bear. We've been here for two days and we haven't seen a bear yet."
"I'm not really sure I--"
"You have them tagged, right? The bears?"
"Uh, some of them are tagged, yes."
"So then you know where some are. Could you make one come out?"
I'm not sure how to respond other than with blunt honesty. "No, we can't make them do anything. A bear is a wild animal. It does what it wants."
Her husband chimes in, "But if you knew where one was, you could... flush it out, right?" He's clearly quite pleased with his hypothesis. "Fire a shot from one direction and herd it this way."
"We... don't do anything like that. We generally leave the bears alone unless they endanger our park visitors."
"You know," she says, "When you pay an entrance fee* for something, you expect a certain level of service."
"Yellowstone isn't a zoo," I say, trying hard to find a good way to put it, and not really succeeding. "When you visit a zoo, you are paying to see a bunch of animals in a cage. When you visit a national park, you're paying to experience the wilderness, and while there are things like Old Faithful that you can be pretty sure you're going to see, there's no guarantee you'll see anything. That's part of the allure. It's how these animals naturally behave, and unfortunately for visitors, their natural behavior is quite often to avoid humans."
She thinks this over for a minute, then asks the obvious follow-up. "So, no bears?"
"No bears on demand. You have to rely on luck. But look at the buffalo." I point out toward the horizon, where at least a hundred buffalo have been grazing since long before this conversation started.
"I've already seen buffalo," she says without turning her head. "I want to see a bear."
He's looking at a map. "How far is it to Lake Lodge?" he asks.
"About an hour, hour and a half, barring traffic."
He turns to his wife. "Let's get going. We have reservations at Lake Lodge at 6:30. Maybe we'll see a bear down there."
. o . o . o .
Bears: Nature's Freeloaders
We're along the side of the road getting ready to do some tracking on the Blacktail wolf pack when a Toyota Corolla or Matrix or some similar small, efficient car pulls up alongside us. The back window rolls down and a tiny, ancient woman asks us where the bear troughs are.
"The bear what?"
"The bear troughs. The feeding troughs for the bears."
"We don't have any feeding troughs for the bears. It's very dangerous to feed human food to bears."
"Oh, baloney. When I was here as a little girl they had feeding troughs for the bears**. First the papa bears would come out, and then the mama bears would come out with the baby bears and eat from the troughs, and everyone would stand behind this fence, you see, and take pictures of the bears."
"Where was this?"
"But what part of the park? I mean, Yellowstone is pretty--"
"Oh, I don't remember, I was a little girl! Do they not have those anymore?"
"No, ma'am, the park staff doesn't feed the bears. When bears become accustomed to human food, they seek it out at the expense of their natural diet, and they become a danger to us. It's called habituation."
"Well. I'm sure it was the Democrats who decided that. Always telling people what they can and can't do."
"Actually, ma'am, it was the Republicans. They didn't think it was right that the bears were getting a free handout."
. o . o . o .
* The current entrance fee is $25 per automobile for seven days. I don't believe this fee is high enough to warrant a Bears On Demand service.
** OK, this woman wasn't completely crazy, but I had to ask about it. Before Yellowstone had a waste management plan, bears were attracted to the piles of garbage that the park generated every day, and once this became known to visitors, they would gather around the trash pile at dusk and wait to see the bears come out. In order to maintain some semblance of order, workers constructed some benches and an employee would sometimes talk about the bears while they were fighting each other over trash. But feeding bears directly has been outlawed in the park since 1902, and the "bear show" was cancelled right around World War II.