Hungry Bears a Worry at Yellowstone

This summer, we've had some tragic reminders that America's wilderness is still wild. Two people were killed in separate grizzly bear attacks outside Yellowstone National Park in the span of about a month. Some worry more attacks could come.

Of all the natural beauty in Yellowstone National Park, what many visitors come to see is the largest, most terrifying predator on the continent: the grizzly bear.

"I think it's sort of like a mythical creature," said tourist Reid Whiting. "Everyone sort of has an opinion about it."

In 1975 grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species. CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that since then, their numbers have grown steadily. Now some 600 grizzlies live in and around Yellowstone, but not always peacefully.

In July, campers called 9-1-1 after a bear rampaged through a campground just outside Yellowstone. The 9-1-1 caller said, "my daughter's boyfriend got bit by a bear. There's another lady down there that's screaming. I don't know if she got bit or not."

Camper Deb Freele was attacked as she slept. Pointing to the wounds on her body, Freele said, "The bear grabbed me here, and then behind, and laid open my arm from there to there."

Another camper was killed by the bear. His death came just over a month after a botanist was mauled to death by another of the region's grizzlies.

The two deaths were outside the boundaries of Yellowstone Park, but the grizzlies pay no attention to boundaries. Each bear can roam across hundreds of square miles in search of food.

This year there's a shortage of one of their favorite foods, cones from the white bark pine. As the bears search for other things to eat as they put on weight for the winter there's worry they'll start running into people.

"A mother bear will teach her cubs - come get garbage in the fall when we need to fatten up for hibernation," said Ilona Popper. Popper runs a bear awareness group in Gardiner, Mont., that's urging everyone to use bear-proof garbage cans as the first line of defense.

"When they start seeing these things around town, they give it a pass." Popper added.

At one time in Yellowstone, garbage was actually put out for the bears. Tourists would often feed bears by hand. The trouble was bears started associating humans with food and attacks in the park were frequent.

"From the 1930s through the 1960s, we averaged 48 bear maulings every year," said Yellowstone bear biologist Kerry Gunther.

Today bear attacks are rare but the deaths this year are a reminder that bear country is dangerous. Grizzlies are predators that can and will eat almost anything.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.