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Some grizzly bears near Yellowstone Lake

Enter one of Montana’s national parks, wilderness areas or national forest campgrounds and you’ll see the signs warning campers to keep their food properly stored. Yellowstone National Park officials say they are very aggressive about enforcing food storage in the park.

If the old adage is true that a fed bear is a dead bear, then what happens to the humans who leave their food out, or keep a sloppy camp site?

Park rangers in Glacier National Park captured and euthanized a 3-year-old black bear last week, saying the animal had become conditioned to human food and had entered the Fish Creek Campground one too many times.

It’s a sad loss of wildlife and it begs the question: what happens to those responsible for the bear’s slow conditioning?

“Improper food storage was the second most common violation in 2012 in Glacier Park,” said park spokeswoman Jennifer Lutman. “This year, we’ve seen roughly 100 citations issued for improper food storage.”

Lutman said the citations have included both warnings and tickets. A violation of the park’s food storage rules may result in a $75 fine or possible confiscation of the items in question.

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Enter one of Montana’s national parks, wilderness areas or national forest campgrounds and you’ll see the signs warning campers to keep their food properly stored.

Officials in Yellowstone National Park enforce the postings daily, calling it a human safety factor. Like Glacier, Yellowstone is home to a healthy population of both brown and black bears.

“We’re very aggressive on our food storage issues,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. “We’re going to be in every campground, every night, and we’re going to be monitoring the situation.”

Nash said the park’s goal remains education over punishment. In 2010, he said, rangers issued 126 citations for “camping violations.” Speeding remains the park’s leading offense.

“We really feel our focus on the prevention has been very successful over the years,” Nash said. “That’s one of the many ways we’ve been able to minimize bear-human conflicts.”

At least in Yellowstone, it wasn’t always that way. Early visitors to the nation’s first national park gathered at trash dumps to watch bears feed on garbage. The sites became tourist attractions, and bears learned that food was plentiful.

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But as one might expect, the number of bear-human conflicts increased, as did lethal actions taken against “problem” bears. The park’s bear-management policies were bad for conservation and safety.

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According to the Yellowstone Park Foundation, an average of 48 bear-inflicted human injuries and more than 100 incidents of property damage occurred annually in Yellowstone between 1931 and 1969.

“I’m old enough to have remembered from my earlier visits the black bears begging for food along the roadsides,” Nash said. “The real big change occurred here in the mid-to late ’60s, when we really made a conscious decision to remove garbage and other potential food sources, and establish and install bear-proof garbage cans.”

The park made sweeping changes to its bear management policies in 1970, the year it also implemented strict enforcement rules. Other parks learned from the experience in Yellowstone, where rangers now work to keep food away from bears, and bears away from people.

“Our campground hosts will be going through campgrounds in the evening,” Nash said. “If they see something, they’ll approach people at a campsite and remind them of the rules. If something is left out at night, the campers will get a note or a citation.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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