April 2, 2009
Oral Histories of Bear Management
Bears have had a tumultuous experience in Yellowstone over the last century. Though the Park was established in 1872 to protect Yellowstone’s natural resources and abundant wildlife, bear management in the Park has been fraught with challenges, missteps, and—more recently—great successes.
On April 30, 2007, after more than 30 years of receiving special protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area from threatened species status. The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 because of unsustainable levels of human-caused mortality, loss of habitat, and significant habitat alteration.
Since then, state and federal public land and wildlife managers as well as private organizations, like the Yellowstone Park Foundation, have worked together for the conservation of grizzly bears and their habitat. The species has made a remarkable recovery -- probably one of the greatest conservation successes in the history of the United States.
A newly completed project compiles the history of bear management as seen through the eyes of those who participated. In order to record the first-person stories of those involved in the Park’s effort to conserve its magnificent bruins, the Yellowstone Park Foundation raised funds to tell Yellowstone’s bear management story. The Oral History of Bear Management project was a three-year endeavor to interview nearly 40 of the researchers, conservationists, wildlife managers, and Park visitors who participated in, witnessed, or influenced Yellowstone’s early bear management practices.
History, in Their Own Words
According to Yellowstone’s oral historian, Charissa Reid, the Park has recorded oral histories in its vast Archive dating back to at least the 1940s.
“Yellowstone’s past experience with oral history tells us that this is a powerful means of preserving the unique memories of people whose stories and experiences might otherwise be lost,” explained Reid, who also mentioned that as part of this project, previously collected oral histories were converted to digital format for safer preservation.
Reid considers conducting these interviews a privilege. “For me personally”, she said, “it was very inspiring to talk to people like Chuck Schwarz, the current leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, and hear his dedication to ensuring the future of grizzly populations. Knowing that committed and passionate scientists were an active part of the process was a reassurance as delisting became a reality.”
Reid remembers listening to Bob Morey, a long time National Park Service ranger, talk about going into Fishing Bridge Campground -- which was fully occupied by campers -- after dark in the 1950s with a loaded weapon and instructions to exterminate problem grizzly bears that frequented the campground. “It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today, for many reasons!” said Reid.
Preserved for the Future
While clearly worth the effort, collecting oral histories is a labor-intensive undertaking. It can take up to ten hours to transcribe each hour of recorded interviews. The transcribed interviews are now housed within the Park's Archive at Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center (HRC) and made available to the public, researchers, and Park staff. Since they were recorded digitally, excerpts have also been made available online. Yellowstone Park Foundation funding made the Park's transition to digital format possible.
The interviews are enhancing the Park’s long-standing bear records, further improving our understanding of bear behavior and management policies. The project is also making the lessons learned from the last century available to current managers and future generations as they work to conserve other threatened and endangered species.
Future oral history projects, partially funded by the Archive Fund -- another Yellowstone Park Foundation initiative -- will focus on the 1988 fires, wolf reintroduction, and bison management.
Click here to access online audio clips of interviews from this project, on the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center website.
"Alive, the grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding -- a sign that man can learn to conserve what is left of the earth. Extinct, it will be another fading testimony to things man should have learned more about, but was too preoccupied with himself to notice. In its beleaguered condition, it is above all a symbol of what man is doing to the entire planet. If we can learn from these experiences, and learn rationally, both grizzly and man may have a chance to survive."