A Tale: “The worst nuisance in the way of wild varmints is the bears.” Clifton Johnson, 1919.

Model T tourists and bears YDSF

Sometime in the nineteen teens, Clifton Johnson took a walking tour of Yellowstone Park. He visited the area in May before the tourist season, so about the only people he encountered were winter keepers, men who cleared the roofs of park buildings to keep mountains of snow from crushing them. Johnson had long conversations with the winter keepers and collected their stories.

One of the people Johnson interviewed was the winter keeper at Norris Geyser Basin, a man who had lived in the park since 1883 before the Army took over administration there. The Army forbid hunting and ended the decimation of park wildlife that had made seeing large animals like elk and bison rare. The soldiers lacked today’s notion of ecological balance so they continued killing large predators like wolves and mountain lions in hopes of protecting other animals.

By the time Johnson visited Yellowstone Park, most animals had made a comeback so he saw many of them and their tracks in fresh snow as he trudged along. Here’s what the winter keeper at Norris said about Yellowstone animals.


 I spoke to the keeper about some of the animals I had seen, and of the numerous foot prints of wild creatures I had observed in the snow and mud. “Yes,” he said, “we have here about every animal that’ll live in a cold climate—bears and buffaloes, moose, wildcats, lynx, badgers, big-horns, red, black, blue, and silver foxes, mountain lions, eagles, and lots of other creatures. They claim there ain’t any wolves; but I think I saw one once. He snapped his jaw at me and run off, but it was in a snowstorm, and I didn’t see him real plain.

The government tries to kill off any such animals that are very destructive to the other creatures. Mountain lions are bad that way. They ketch a good many of our deer and elk. I suppose there’s quite a lot of ’em in the park; but you might stay here a hundred years and never see one—they’re just that sly. However, they see you and will follow you, stopping when you stop and going on when you go on.

“Nearly all the animals are much more plenty than they were when I began living in the Park in 1883. I didn’t see any deer for a long time. They were so wild they kept back in the woods. Now they’re so tame I often feed ’em out of my hand.

One of the most interesting things I know of is to see a deer kill a snake. It will leap into the air, put all four feet within a few inches of each other and light on the snake so quick that the snake don’t know what’s happened. The deer is off at once, and then makes the same kind of a jump again and again, till its sharp hoofs cut the snake right in two. A deer will kill every snake it comes across.

“One queer creature we have in the Park is a wood rat—a tremendous big fellow with a flat tail as large around as your finger. It likes to beat on the floor with that tail, and makes as much noise as you could with a stick. For a nesting place it prefers some dark loft where it uses all sorts of rubbish in building a nest that would fill a barrel. Whatever it can get hold of that is not too heavy or bulky it carries off. We might leave our shoes and socks here by the stove, and perhaps one of those rats would carry ’em off. But the chances are, if it wasn’t disturbed, it would bring ’em back the next night.

“The worst nuisance we have though in the way of wild varmints is the bears. They’re raising Cain all the time, and there’s getting to be lots of ’em. The grizzlies are the bosses. When a bunch of the cinnamons and blacks are together at a hotel garbage heap they all get up and run fit to kill themselves if a grizzly comes around. Some of the bears are big fellows that have a footprint the size of a pan. About this time of year they’re beginning to fish in the small streams. They’ll lie down at the edge of the water and watch perfectly still, and then give a slap that’ll throw a trout way out on the land.

“They make lots of trouble for tourists with tents and wagons. I was camping in the Park one time, and a bear smelt my provisions and come right after ’em. It was night and dark, and every time I heard the bear prowling around I’d throw something at it, and I had to spend all the next day picking up the articles I’d used for bombarding the creature.

“I used to have a mule that liked nothing better than to chase a bear up a tree. Then he’d back up to the into a path made by two bears which had followed the road, one behind the other, almost the entire distance to the Canyon. The imprint of their broad feet was clearly marked and had a savagely human aspect. I decided to give the creatures the road if I chanced to meet them, and that I would climb a tree if they were inclined to cultivate my acquaintance. But probably they would have made as hasty a detour as any I contemplated. At least, two grizzlies which I attempted to approach one evening in the neighborhood of the hotel where I was stopping, promptly scampered off into the brush with just such snorts of alarm as a hog makes when suddenly frightened into flight.


— “May in the Yellowstone, Pages 215-231 in Clifton Johnson, Highways and Byways of the Rocky Mountains.  New York: MacMillan, 1919.

— Photo, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

— You might also enjoy  this tale about “Hunting a Mountain Lion.”

— To see more stories like this click “Bears” under the Categories Button.

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