The “Proper Way?”: Horace Albright and Yellowstone Bear Policy in the 1920s

Earlier this spring, wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen sent a succinct text to his friend, famed British primatologist Jane Goodall, which read simply: “Miraculously, she still lives!”  The she in question was Bear 399, a 24-year old grizzly sow, who emerged from hibernation this year in Grand Teton National Park with four cubs in tow. One of the oldest wild grizzlies in the world, Bear 399 delights national park sightseers both with her longevity and her predilection for roadside treks with her cubs.

Apex predators like Bear 399 are a major attraction for national park tourists and the National Park Service urges caution with the more than 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. “Visitors should be aware that all bears are potentially dangerous,” according to Yellowstone National Park, and “Park regulations require that people stay at least 100 yards (91 m) from bears (unless safely in your car as a bear moves by). Bears need your concern, not your food; it is against the law to feed any park wildlife, including bears.”

A century ago, Yellowstone’s rules and regulations regarding the interaction of resident bears and human visitors were very different, and much more perilous. Led by one of the most influential figures in national park history, Yellowstone actively encouraged the interaction of well-heeled tourists and grizzly bears—to the detriment of both groups.

Superintendent Horace Albrigh (L) t with Herbert Hoover (R), Secretary of Commerce (prior to presidency); Photographer unknown; Around 1928

Horace Albright was a seminal figure in the early National Park Service. He was Director Stephen Mather’s top lieutenant during the creation of the agency and was the de facto director of the parks when Mather occasionally recovered from bouts of mental illness. From 1919 to 1929, he served as Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, then succeeded his mentor as Director of the National Park Service in 1929.

Like Mather, Albright was committed to a form of conservation that privileged the “enjoyment” part of the Park Service mandate. He wanted to increase visitation to the parks to justify the existence of his bureaucracy, and he knew charismatic bears were a major attraction for city dwelling tourists. In places like Yellowstone, Albright wanted to please “the public who like the bears…much more than the geysers” and he created extraordinarily dangerous situations to do so.

To satisfy the ursine desires of Yellowstone tourists, Albright authorized the feeding of hotel garbage to hungry bears in the park. At regular intervals and near park hotels, rangers and other employees would dump food scraps at sites sometimes styled as bear “lunch counters.”  Delighted tourists could watch the spectacle from stadium-style bleachers, as park rangers with rifles looked on protectively.

In 1928, Horace Albright co-wrote the book Oh Ranger!: A Book about the National Parks, which one reviewer called “highly entertaining…[and] instructive,” and “a book worth placing in every American library.” In one chapter, with the dubious title “Why Bears Behave Like Human Beings,” Albright contended that for excited, childlike tourists: “Bears are no longer wild animals. They have become personified. They are like people, and the visitors to the park want to treat them as such.”

Albright interspersed some legitimate advice for grizzly country visitors—use noise to avoid bear encounters and secure food caches when camping—with dangerous anecdotes about anthropomorphized bears and foolhardy tourists. “One Sagebrusher, for the sake of a picture, held some bacon in his mouth and coaxed the bear to remove said bacon from his mouth. He got his picture and also escaped without injury,” Albright reported. An observing park ranger let this encounter happen and then taught dozens of other tourists the “proper way” to feed Yellowstone bears, which in the 1920s involved throwing the wild animal candy from afar.

After his career with the parks ended, and facing criticism from wildlife biologists, Albright could not comprehend “why the public cannot have access to one or two big feeding sites where they can see both black bears and grizzlies, photograph them, and enjoy their funny antics and be safe.” Albright argued that during his stint as Yellowstone superintendent, bears bit a mere 200 visitors a year with “no significant negative effect.”

Albright’s statements were both ridiculous and inaccurate. During Albright’s first year at Yellowstone, a grizzly sow killed a tourist at a park garbage dump, when the man got too close to her cub. In October 1928, a few months after the publication of Oh Ranger!, another grizzly significantly injured an employee outside a park hotel while foraging for food. Rumors of other deaths occasionally occurred, and at times, Albright faced claims that he covered up bear encounters in Yellowstone, in an effort to protect visitation statistics.

Luckily, for both national park tourists and grizzlies like Bear 399, ecology eventually supplanted tourist desires as the governing principle of wildlife management in places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton. And therein lies the lesson of Horace Albright’s policies—ideas can and must continue to change.

Today, Yellowstone welcomes guests to the Albright Visitor Center and promises to “provide information for a safe and enjoyable visit” to the park. As that information gets better, especially regarding the wellbeing of both grizzlies and humans, we must embrace new and better bear policy, in the national parks and throughout the American West.

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