Nature Notes

Volume XXX - 1999

Bears During the War
By Joseph S. Dixon

As we greet the new millennium, it is time to reflect upon all the changes that have taken place throughout the 20th century. Bears have been a frequent management concern ever since the National Park Service assumed administration of Crater Lake National Park in 1917, mainly because garbage disposal took place next to Park Headquarters. Thankfully, negative interactions between people and the genus Ursus seem to have decreased in the 55 years since a National Park Service wildlife biologist wrote the following report. Garbage is now hauled away, though visitors may yet have the rude surprise of encountering a bear at a carelessly kept campsite---Editor.

black bear
A hungry bear sniffing the tantalizing fragrance of stew cooking in a nearby cabin. Photo by Joseph S. Dixon.

From May 11th to June 9th, 1944, I made a special study of bears at Crater Lake in relation to domestic livestock. Bears had been reported destroying newborn calves and lambs in the important cattle producing area adjacent to the park's south boundary.1 The study was made at the critical time when the calves and lambs were small and most vulnerable to attack. The bears were then also hungriest, having just come out of hibernation, However, only one valid instance was found in which a bear had killed a calf and the actual loss found was light, being much less than reported.

During August and early September the relation of bears to people living in the park was investigated. Because of war time restrictions on travel, gasoline, tires, and owing to its distant location far from centers of
population, relatively few campers visited Crater Lake this year. The huckieberry crop was poor and because of the failure of both garbage and berry crops, the bears at Crater Lake seldom had full stomachs. Because of this shortage of both natural and artificial foods, the open-trench garbage pit was visited daily by the bears.2

Due to the large visitor attendance during 1941, and the resultant increase of garbage and refuse, the bears gathered around our headquarters area garbage pits in ever-increasing numbers.3 This naturally caused considerable overflow of bears into camp grounds, residential areas, and along the main highways. Crater Lake was fast becoming a "bear" park in the worst sense of the term. Forty bears were counted at one time in and around the garbage pit that summer. Limited funds have dictated that the pit or trench type of disposal would be continued until a more efficient method of garbage disposal can be worked out and put into operation.

The outbreak of the war brought considerable relief through a decline in visitor attendance and a consequent reduction in garbage. The bear problem was thus reduced in the actual tonnage of garbage involved, but the bears that remained were ones that had become badly addicted to a garbage diet and lived largely on this unnatural food. Several bears learned that much of the present garbage originates in the garbage cans kept at the cabins occupied by park employees. These are located a scant quarter of a mile from the open garbage pit, and naturally the bears proceeded to exploit this food supply.4 One bear invaded a cabin and refused to be driven away from the bacon and other food that it found on the kitchen shelves. This bear became a menace to the women and children, refusing to be driven away from food that it found in the houses, and so it was permanently removed.

During August 1944, I found that certain bears spent much of their time at the open garbage pit. It measured 120 feet long and 12 feet wide, and these bears fed daily on the garbage. Six bears were seen at the garbage pit at one time but rarely were more than three adults in the pit at the same time. Daily observations revealed that one large old "boss" male bear always drove the other bears away from the fresh deposit of garbage until he had pawed it over and selected and eaten the choicest portions. Having eaten the best snacks, this bear usually retired to a cool shady spot beside the road where he waited to beg contributions of candy or other food from the occupants of the private automobiles that regularly made the quarter mile side drive from the main highway into the garbage pit. Traffic was always better over the weekend, with Sundays bringing the greatest number of cars to the park and over the little loop service road that lead to the garbage pit. The National Park Service gave no publicity to the bears at the pit, but counts made on various Sundays showed that about 30 percent of the cars that came into the park on the main highway drove down to the garbage pits. A check on the automobile license plates showed that most of the cars visiting the garbage pit were Oregon licenses and evidently belonged to local people. Very few "out of state" cars visited the garbage pit and apparently few of them knew of its existence.

Certain bears shared their garbage and permitted other bears to feed unmolested within a few feet of them, but in the majority of instances the biggest bear ate his fill first then the next largest and so on down the line. The yearlings and the cubs waited either up a tree or at the end of the line.

bears at garbage pit
Bears at garbage pit, Park Headquarters. This is now the site of a residential complex called Steel Circle. Photo by Joseph S. Dixon.

In order to keep the bears from raiding the residential area, garbage was kept in the cabins and not placed in the garbage cans until just before the garbage truck made its daily rounds at 2:30 in the afternoon. This helped to keep down bear depredation but it had its drawbacks. One bear made life miserable by coming around just ahead of the garbage truck and raiding the garbage in the cans. Experiments showed that bears can detect the presence of "fragrant" garbage such as cantaloupe rinds, at a distance of 70 feet under favorable wind conditions.

Keeping the garbage in the cabins was a dangerous invitation to all hungry bears to break into the cabins for food kept there. One bear in particular hung around the housekeeping cabins, and on many occasions when a meal was being cooked, the bear would sit a few feet distant sniffing the tantalizing odor. One day while I ate lunch in our cabin, a bear came up and tried to claw the screen off the cabin door. This bear later tried to open our cabin door while I was sitting six feet away from it and may have been the one that broke into and seriously damaged an empty, parked and locked car.

It should be stated that the 1944 huckleberry crop was poor at Crater Lake. I followed various bears about for many hours while they sought huckleberries, Although these bears worked diligently, they were able to gather relatively few berries but not enough to satisfy their hunger. It was their usual custom to locate huckleberries through the sense of smell. Having located the berries, the bear then grasped the huckleberry branch loosely in its mouth and by a twist of its head dragged the branch through its teeth, thereby securing several berries plus some green leaves. Examination of bear feces indicated that the bears swallowed some entire huckleberry branches without chewing them.

black bear
The huckleberry crop was short this season and the bears worked hard for a few berries. Photo by Joseph S. Dixon.

In order to see how the bears were behaving on the national forest lands adjacent to and comparable with park lands, I made a trip to Huckleberry Mountain which lies west of Union Peak and just outside the park. Here, on August 25th I found that people in the Forest Service camp ground were having considerable trouble with bears. Investigation revealed that there were many extensive patches of huckleberry, hut that the berry crop was light and spotty. Tracks and droppings showed that most of the bears had given up the berry patches in favor of the garbage that they found at the various camp grounds. I found some places where garbage had not been properly disposed of, but had been thrown into squirrel holes and under stumps. It was dug up and eaten by bears, who thus proceeded to raid the food supply of the campers. Three well trained dogs had been unable to keep the bears out of one camp ground after the bears had started raiding the food supplies of campers. One large bear had been killed, but the depredations continued. Garbage draws bears just as honey attracts bees and there is little doubt that as long as garbage is dumped in an open trench as at Crater Lake, there will be a bear problem.5


1This is the Wood River Valley north of Fort Klamath.

2The site is now a residential area called Steel Circle, located south and slightly west of the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden.

3Annual visitation set a record that year at 273,564, but plummeted to 42,385 in 1944 because of World War II. It presently averages 500,000 annually.

4The cabins were located in an area called Sleepy Hollow, but all have been replaced by newer structures.

5Construction of a new incinerator and pit in the lower end of Munson Valley during 1945 simply shifted the problem a little further south. The hauling of garbage outside the park finally commenced in 1972 and has resulted in far fewer difficulties with bears.

Joseph S. Dixon served as a roving wildlife biologist and naturalist for the National Park Service before his death in 1952.

black bear seal
Drawing by L. Howard Crawford, 1934.

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