Many tourists visiting the West treat the national parks and environs as if they were giant, open-air petting zoos. For instance, in Yellowstone, despite an abundance of signs and brochures available with the typically prudent warnings, they routinely approach grazing elk and bison for close-up photo-ops. I once saw a park ranger reprimand a man for trying to put a young child on the back of an uncooperative elk. A few years ago the local media was abuzz with the story of a male French tourist who had been gored to death by a bull bison after getting too close. And once near the Park's East Entrance I advised caution to a camera-toting woman who had bolted from a car with New Jersey plates for a shot of a grizzly bear near the road. Her insolent reply cannot be printed on a family website.
In 1996, my mother, two sisters and their husbands, and nine nieces and nephews came to Wyoming for a family reunion. One day while visiting Yellowstone we pulled the two van caravan into a picnic area for lunch. The kids immediately began to feed potato chips to the large black and white magpies, Clark's Nuthatches, and other birds hanging around. It was left to "Uncle Bill" to tell them to stop, and this raised the ire of my mother, always confrontational in defense of her grandchildren.
"Why? What harm are they doing?" she asked defensively.
"Federal law makes it illegal to feed wildlife in a national park," I said authoritatively (Peggy hates a smart aleck). "If a ranger came by we'd probably get off with a warning the first time. But on the books it's a $500 fine."
"That's crazy," said my New York mother. "They're just feeding the birds like in any other park."
"Look, Peg, I'm just telling you what the law says. Besides, Yellowstone isn't just "any other park."
"Fine," said my stubborn Irish mother. "Kids, feed the birds. Grandma will pay the fine if it comes to that."
I relate this bit of normally contentious family history because a grizzly bear was recently euthanized by Wyoming state wildlife officials a few miles outside the border of the Park near the East Entrance. Though the circumstances are different (wildlife outside national park borders can usually be fed with impunity), the bear's unavoidable death was the direct result of its being fed by humans, and of losing its fear of them.
The grizzly in question was a three-year-old "subadult" (or adolescent) male orphaned two years ago when its mother was struck by a truck on the North Fork Highway. The then cub started frequenting the grounds of nearby Pahaska Teepee Resort (the site of Buffalo Bill Cody's original hunting camp of the same name), allowing careless tourists to approach with such treats as crackers, candy bars and pieces of fruit.
"People think it's fun to feed them, and ultimately it ends in the bear's removal" (either relocation or euthanasia, depending on the circumstances), Mark Bruscino, bear management officer with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told the Billings, Montana Gazette. "It's well known everywhere bears exist that once they receive human foods, they can become dangerous…. Unfortunately, people have repeatedly fed and approached this bear, and he had become habituated to human foods and people…. If we don't intervene, someone will get hurt." It's an old story that these types of bears routinely behave aggressively in campgrounds, and break into vacant cabins, etc. (It is also the reason that Yellowstone banned roadside feeding in 1969, and at the same time closed the dumps, now hauling all the trash outside the Park's borders on a daily basis).
Despite that intensive public education campaign by federal and state officials using signs and brochures urging people not to feed bears and other wildlife, it remains an ongoing problem. We go through this every summer. The irony is that -- according to polls -- the majority of Americans are sympathetic to environmental matters, especially wildlife preservation. The same urban folks who take their kids to the zoo, or send an occasional check to the Audubon Society, think nothing of ignoring signs prohibiting the feeding of wildlife.
As an aside, it's interesting to note what happened to the remains of the cub's mother after she was hit by the truck. Thanks to the taxidermist's art, she now graces a natural history exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. If people don't stop feeding grizzlies, this may be the only way future generations will know them.