Bears eat ice cream. Moose don’t.

As the Hole Deepens

Bears eat ice cream. Moose don’t.



“Please train your bears to be where guests can see them. This was an expensive trip to not get to see bears.”

A visitor left that note in the Comments box at one of the hotels in Yellowstone last summer, and within two weeks it was all over Facebook, Yahoo, and various social media sites where people say snarky things about strangers. None of the hundred or so comments I read thought the tourist was anything other than a sincere idiot.

Having written my share of fake letters to the editor and notes to congressmen—who do you think gave Scott Walker the idea of building a wall across the northern border to keep out Canadians—I myself was dubious as to the innocence of the comment card. But what do I know? How can one person figure it out when a million didn’t?

Anyway, the note got me thinking: how does Yellowstone position its wildlife for tourist season? There’s too much money at stake for the deal to be random. I’ve seen the same buffalo in the same swampy pond every June for seven summers. And there’s a moose down in the willows off the Jackson Lake Lodge back deck. You can watch it through a coin-operated tower viewer on a pole, provided by the lodge. That moose hasn’t moved a muscle in years. Nature doesn’t park an animal and leave it.

Obviously many of the national park animals are animatronic. Ever take the jungle ride at Disneyland? No one over the age of six thinks the hippo is real. Why do people fall for a stuffed wolf on a mountaintop a mile away at Roaring Mountain?

I’m sure you’ll be happy to know many of the animals closest to the roads are real. In order to ensure survival through the harsh Yellowstone winter, the government rounds up all the wildlife they can catch and keeps them in heated pens under the hot springs terraces at Mammoth. That’s what the hot water is for.

In November I drove to Mammoth to meet my friend, Eats the Dirt, the famous Kickapoo buffalo whisperer. Eats the Dirt claims he’s in charge of animal placement in Yellowstone. I’ve never known whether to believe him or not. It seems impossible, but I hate to write off a minority shaman’s culture. The Kickapoo say they talk to beasts. It’s arrogant for white people to dismiss their beliefs.

Bottom line is I can’t talk to animals, unless you count being able to read domestic cat moods by their ears.

So I had to trust Eats the Dirt’s translation.

They keep the animals segregated in species-specific pens to cut down on the spread of brucellosis and ripping each other to shreds. Eats the Dirt stood at a podium, like a conductor with an orchestra, and directed the meeting where they divvied up the prime locations. It’s one of the last places in America where seniority matters.

“Where’s Max?”

An ancient-by-moose-years moose lifted his head. Eats the Dirt translated for me. “He said, ‘Here.’

“I want you in that meadow at Beryl Springs. But closer to the road this summer. Tourists are getting blasé about ungulates. They won’t slam their brakes for less than carnivores. You can’t cause a decent traffic jam two hundred yards out in the grass.”

“But the feed over by the road is oily from construction trucks. And children throw toys at me. I had ice cream on my horns all last summer. We need a sign that says ‘Bears eat ice cream. Moose don’t.’ ”

“Your job isn’t to complain. It’s to stop traffic. The hotels pay us to make certain no one sees the whole park in a day. You can’t shirk.”

“And why do we care about the hotels?”

“Without them making a profit Yellowstone becomes a strip mine. Think where you’d be then. Can’t have land not producing cash. I want more elk in the Hayden Valley. You guys are not earning your keep in the backcountry.”

This brought on a chorus of boos from the elk. Even I could hear them.

“And you buffalo—I’m moving all six of you who stomped tourists at Old Faithful over to Lamar Valley. Let you dodge wolves for a summer. See if that doesn’t make you appreciate our visitors.”

The buffalo expressed outrage, which in a buffalo means a lot of snorting and mucus blowing.

“The fool put a child on my back. Was I supposed to take that lying down?”

“I was surrounded by selfie sticks and flashes went off in my eyes. I charged the phone. Can I help it if a man got in my way? Don’t they know we are wild animals?”

Eats the Dirt said, “Breaking tourist legs is bad public relations.”

Here’s an interesting scientific fact: since selfies became the fad, buffalo stomps have increased threefold. A tourist group—often foreigners who are unable to read the “Danger” flyers—stands with their backs to the buffalo and aims phones at them. Heck, I would charge if they did it to me.

“At least we didn’t kill anybody,” the elder female whined. “Grizzlies kill people, but you give them the prime locations.”

Eats the Dirt’s tone was one of a grownup addressing a fractious child. “A grizzly with three cubs can back traffic up for four miles. You cause complete chaos like a good bear jam and we’ll see about a better location.”

“Might happen if you let us mount our cows on the center stripe,” said a bull elk who hadn’t gotten over his rut yet.

“Sorry,” Eats the Dirt said. “We’re a family park.”

The elder buffalo wouldn’t let go of her complaint. “But Blaze ate a health care professional. The government put her to sleep.”

A marmot piped up: “They didn’t put her to sleep. They killed her.”

“And let this be a lesson to you all,” Eats the Dirt said. “Blaze wasn’t destroyed for killing the guy. She was destroyed for eating him. People have a myth that says once an animal has tasted human flesh he’ll never stop killing until the animal is hunted down and exterminated. The story started with Tarzan and spread to Zane Grey. Now all the writers buy it.”

“I’ve eaten human flesh,” said a wolf. “Tastes like chicken.”

There followed an awkward silence, the animal kingdom version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Why does the government persist in this Put to Sleep balderdash?” asked a sandhill crane. “Do they think we don’t know the difference between sleep and dead?”

Eats the Dirt went into the medicine man voice he uses for explaining deep stuff.

“The government won’t ever say kill. They don’t know the word.”

“But it’s all the same,” the sandhill said. “Do they think we’re stupid?”

“It’s a matter of tone. Tone is important.”

Eats the Dirt held up his hand and counted off his fingers. “Here’s what humans write or say when they mean kill an animal: crop, take, thin, harvest, suppress, put down, put to sleep, subdue, repress, extinguish, censor, localize, secure, limit, check, clear, pacify, reduce, cull, trim, manage, regulate, lose, euthanize, and—my favorite—maintain population objectives.

“Not once have I heard a government minion admit to killing an animal.”

“That’s sick,” said a coyote who was himself the subject of a massive reduction program across the West.

“And those are just some of the terms they use for wiping out animals. They have a whole other set of words for people.”

I perked up for this. I’m interested in how people rationalize legal ways of killing other people. It’s usually religious, but sometimes they mix in money and sex.

Eats the Dirt said, “You should go online and download some of those Pentagon documents. Do a find/replace switching out ‘collateral damage’ for ‘kill innocent bystanders.’ See if that doesn’t change the tone.”