We’ll, we’ve hit that time of year when those planning to hike the Wonderland Trail next summer are drooling over outdoor gear sites, reading every bit of information on the trail and waiting for the snow to fall and melt. It’s a fantastic time to get yourself amped up, then suffer for another 3 months until you can actually put the reservation process in motion on March 15th, 2013. Oh the agony of the wait! To keep you occupied, I thought it would be fun to give you a little glimpse into the history of bear management over the years in Mount Rainier National Park. When researching my book I learned a lot about the bear events that took place by talking with retired Park Rangers and spending hours looking through archival pictures. Oh how far we’ve come! Enjoy the read.
Bears and national parks go hand in hand and most have an outstanding human to bear conflict history with nearly all incidents involving food conditioned behaviors. Mt. Rainier is no exception. In the early days of the park, trash from Paradise Inn was carelessly dumped in outdoor ditches instead of being properly disposed. Of course, the hungry and very smart bears figured out this delectable and convenient food source and wasted no time ‘having at it’. Employees of the Paradise Inn got to know the bears by coloration and temperament and begin to treat them as pets, giving them handouts and even going so far as to kiss them goodnight! The bears became a roadside attraction and before long, cleaver entrepreneurs saw dollar signs and created a motor-coach tour for bear viewing. At $1.00 per person, the excited tourists could gawk at the bears rooting through yesterdays garbage and even occasionally touch or feed them. In addition to the motor-coach tours, bears were fed by hands coming out of cars as delighted tourists offered them tasty morsels by the roadside. At one point, the park even offered guided walking tours with a Park Ranger, who led giddy tourists out to the bears and fed them jars of honey by hand.
By the 1930’s the park service got wise to the hazards for both people and bears and decided to put a stop to the shenanigans. Camp sites were fitted with bear proof trash cans and much to the chagrin of the begging bruins, the ditches were closed. After that, rangers spent much time trying to ‘un-condition’ the bears by chasing them out of campground using park-issued trucks with horns or sirens and flashing headlights. The wise bears quickly judged the situation and learned that while park-issued trucks were bad, all other vehicles were fair game and the human to bear conflict continued. Despite the park services best efforts with putting electric fences on campground and live-trapping of road-begging bears for relocation, the bear problem continued well into the 50s and 60’s. Today, bear management in Mt. Rainier national park is a priority and problem bears are rare. Backcountry campgrounds have bear poles on which to hang food and trash while front country campgrounds have food storage lockers. Trash cans around the park are all bear-proof and the public is better educated about bear etiquette as well as the safety and preservation of these great beasts. When the occasional bear causes issues in the park, a ranger is generally stationed near by to watch and inform travelers.
When you hit the trail this summer and see the bears of Mount Rainier behaving well, keep in mind those bears are likely the descendants of a time when bears ran the park and people ran amuck. Interesting stuff, right?