When It Was Okay to Feed the Bears Garbage at Yellowstone

Canyon Hotel guests watch bears eat trash in the early 1900s – National Park Service – Public Domain

Throughout Yellowstone National Park, visitors see plenty of warnings telling them not to feed the bears (or any other animals).

Once upon a time, though, the rules at USA’s first national park were a lot less strict. In fact, there was an entire attraction dedicated to feeding the bears garbage!

The Park’s Garbage Problem

Yellowstone first became a national park in 1872 — before the states where it’s located (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) had even received statehood.

During its early years, the park had a major problem with its garbage disposal. There were even open garbage dumps throughout the park until 1970.

Grizzly bear at dump in Yellowstone National Park in the 1970s – Yellowstone National Park Photo Archives – Public Domain

You Say Garbage; Bears Say Snack Time

With garbage piling up, the park’s dumps became all-you-can-eat buffets for the bears. At night, they would creep out of the woods and feast on whatever they could get their paws on.

Bears are omnivores and opportunists (as Lake Tahoe’s Hank the Tank and his pals have proven). If they have a chance to eat something, they’re going to eat it; even it’s an item that’s not meat — or even technically food.

The Solution? A Bear Show

Rather than getting rid of the garbage so the bears couldn’t devour it, those in charge of the park decided to turn their feasting into an event for the park’s guests.

Starting in 1890 and running all the way through World War II, Yellowstone hosted nightly “bear shows,” which involved patrons gathering around to watch the bears eat trash.

The park officials erected some wooden bleachers so guests could observe the spectacle from a comfortable vantage point. On occasion, a park ranger would jump on a horse, too, and ride into the arena to give educational talks on the bears.

The bear “Lunch Counter” behind Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park Photo Archives – Public Domain

As all this was happening, black and grizzly bears alike would scavage for their favorite snacks and fight over those they deemed especially valuable.

What’s Was the Problem?

The combination of bears, humans, and trash was an example of animal habituation at its finest.

According to the National Park Service, habituation occurs when an animal is repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus and eventually stops responding to it.

A Yellowstone bear sniffs at a trailer in 1967 – Jonathan Schilling

In the case of the bears at Yellowstone National Park, being continually exposed to humans made them feel more comfortable around them. As they grew comfortable, they started to wreak havoc, tearing up cars, scaring visitors, and even injuring and killing them.

When Did Things Change?

During World War II, visits to the park started to slow down. The National Park Service saw this as an opportunity to revamp the park and close down the public bear shows.

However, the park service was still hauling garbage into the park’s dumps, which meant the bears were still getting their paws on trash. It wasn’t until 1970 when the Trout Creek dump — the last of the dumps in the park — was closed down for good.

Now, armed with more knowledge and experience, the park employees work extra hard to provide a safe and healthy environment for bears and patrons alike.