When I was 23, I spent a summer working as a counselor at an overnight camp for eight-to-12-year-olds near the central mountain town of Genesee, Colorado. After a stern talking-to about what might happen if anyone went to bed with a snack in their sleeping bags—bears, people!—we’d zip the kids into their tents for the night, lock up the cabin containing our kitchen, and try to catch a few hours of sleep.
One morning around 5:30, after a particularly long night of comforting tearful, homesick tweens, I dragged myself into the kitchen for coffee. Two other counselors were already there, surveying the wreckage: a broken window, boxes of food strewn across the linoleum floor, burst bags of hot cocoa mix, and a maze of chocolaty paw prints. We’d assumed our supplies would be safe from intruders, but the flimsy windows were no match for a hungry bear.
That incident was a textbook case of food conditioning, according to wildlife biologist Wes Larson, who researches human-bear conflict. “A bear that breaks into someone’s campsite now understands that they can get this really calorie-dense food,” he explains. “It’s a huge payoff for relatively little effort, compared to spending hours picking berries.” The bear that broke into our camp kitchen was constantly doing a risk analysis—no matter how much she didn’t want to interact with humans, she was too tempted by the reward to stay away.
“That’s when they start doing un-beary things,” Larson says. In other words: they start getting into trouble.
Nearly every bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (GWDC) in West Yellowstone, Montana, has a similar backstory. The center is a nonprofit educational facility that houses grizzly bears unable to survive in the wild for one reason or another. It is also home to three small packs of captive-born wolves, a handful of injured raptors, and five American river otters.
When a wildlife official from anywhere in the American West, Alaska, or Canada has a nuisance grizzly bear and wants to avoid euthanizing it, the GWDC is often near the top of their call list. (Unfortunately, due to the center’s limited capacity, the answer is frequently that it can’t take another bear. In that case, says Randy Gravatt, the GWDC’s container testing coordinator, bears typically have to be euthanized.)
Coram, a male grizzly whose weight fluctuates between 550 and 680 pounds depending on the season, wandered through Kalispell, Montana, checking porches for dog kibble. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks officials trapped him three times before he ended up at the GWDC. Spirit, a female grizzly, couldn’t stay away from a golf course in Whitefish; she was relocated six times—once as far as 100 miles away, but she kept finding her way back to that easy source of food—before one of her cubs was hit by a car and she was taken to the West Yellowstone facility.
Coram, Spirit, and the six other bears that live at the GWDC aren’t just wasting away in captivity, though. They have an important job to do: they test containers to determine whether they’re bear-resistant.