It pains me to write this so hard on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, but the only way I can get this horrible story out of my head, it seems, is by putting it into yours.
Our National Parks have a very checkered past. Our efforts to “tame” nature often had disastrous results, and then later, as philosophies changed, our efforts to restore nature to its original state were often just as bad. This very topic, the fight over the best way to control nature, is the subject of a new book, “Engineering Eden” by Jordan Fisher Smith.
I haven’t read the book but I’m looking forward to doing so. I heard the author discuss it on the radio. He was a park ranger for 21 years, so he speaks about the parks with a great deal of experience and authority.
One of the stories he told was about something that occurred at Yosemite back in 1973. It seems a tourist was in the back country and came across the corpses of 22 bears at the foot of a cliff. There were adults and cubs, and some of the bodies where caught in the trees. Three of them were skinned.
The tourist informed some reporters, and it was discovered that these bears had been killed by park rangers and tossed off the cliff so that the public wouldn’t see them. The three skins where used in an exhibit. The park officials eventually admitted that 200 bears had been killed over the past 12 years in Yosemite alone.
This was their awful solution to a bear “problem” that had been created because humans had habituated them to our food. You can see a lot of historical photos of delighted people hand feeding bears out of their car windows, or gathering around the dump sites to watch the bears eating our garbage. Naturally that caused the bears to become a nuisance. The park policy was to try to relocate the bears, but often they’d be back to their original locations before the rangers could even drag the bear trap back to the capture site. So as a last resort, they’d get the cliff treatment.
I looked all over the internet for more information on this story, and I only came up with this article from the New York Times archives. You’d think that there would have been enough shock and outrage to cause a bit more buzz, but it was 1973. People were much more apt to look the other way back then.
There are now policies in place to discourage the feeding of bears, and there are lock boxes at campsites for food and garbage, and the open dumps no longer exist. Even so, I can’t stop thinking about what it must have been like for that man, out in the wilderness, simply wishing to take in some gorgeous views, and instead coming across that grizzly sight. (Pardon the pun.) It must have been horrifying. One can only hope that the park service has evolved since then, even if the bears haven’t.