An Event: “An Ursine History of Yellowstone Park” in Cooke City


Bears at Dump 2 MHS Photo

Yellowstone tourists watching bears at a hotel dump.

I’ve been preparing a talk titled “An Ursine History of Yellowstone Park: Stories of People and Bears” to present at the Cooke City Museum on Thursday, July 21, at 6 p.m.. It’s part of the Museum’s “Joe’s Campfire Talks,” an outdoor summer series. I’ve presented there twice before and really enjoy the venue.

“Ursine History” is a topic I’ve been thinking about for several years and I’m glad for the opportunity to dig through my files and organize my thoughts on it. I always discover new things when I take a fresh look at my collection of more than 300 first-person accounts by Yellowstone travelers.

Bears are resilient animals that adapt quickly to changes in their surroundings so their behavior provides an interesting way of looking at Yellowstone Park history. Examine how tourists interacted with bears across time reveals a lot about how attitudes toward wildlife and nature have changed.

The first Euro-Americans to visit Yellowstone park were mountain men who scoured the area to trap beaver and other fur bearing animals. For them bears were a source of food —and bear grease that they used for everything from lubricants for their guns to laxatives. I like to enliven my presentations by reading first-person accounts by Yellowstone travelers, so I’ll read an excerpt from Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper for this section of my talk. In the excerpt, Russell learns just how dangerous a grizzly can be when he decides to track a wounded animal.

The congressional act that established Yellowstone Park in 1872 explicitly allowed hunting so visitors to the remote roadless wilderness could hunt for sustenance. That led to an era that some writers have called a holocaust when the population of large animals in Yellowstone was decimated. Bear hunters were among those who came to the park to bag trophies. I’ll read Jack Bean’s hilarious account of a neophyte hunter’s adventure bagging his first bear.

When they were hunted, bears learned that humans meant danger and sightings of them became rare. But after the Army took over administration of the Park in 1886 and outlawed guns, they began to reappear. In fact, they became pests patrolling campground for garbage and unattended picnic baskets. Then hotels created dumps for kitchen garbage in nearby woods and watching bears in them became a signature experience for Yellowstone travelers.

Bears didn’t approach horse-drawn conveyances, but with the coming of the automobile, they rapidly became accomplished roadside beggars, and bear jams backed up traffic for miles. In the 1960s park rangers began locking up garbage containers and enforcing “do not feed the bears” rules. Soon, bear sightings became rare again.

That’s an outline of my presentation. I’m looking forward to giving it. If you’re looking for something to do on Thursday, come to the Cooke City Museum and hear “An Ursine History of Yellowstone Park.”


  • Photo from the Montana Historical Society.









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