REXBURG, Idaho - A cinnamon-colored bear ambles over to the green GMC camper truck, sniffs the tires and stands up on his hind legs. The 400-pound predator paws at the hood and laps at the bug-spattered windshield, behind which sits a giddy young family of four packed on the truck's bench seat.
They're not in a national park, nor in the wild.
This family has paid $8.50 a head to drive through "Yellowstone
Bear World." It is Idaho's latest curious - and potentially
dangerous - private collection of big game.
than 40 miles from Yellowstone National Park borders, a Rexburg
entrepreneur has, critics say, skirted state rules and shipped in a
dozen black bears and several of their massive Kodiak cousins as
the state's newest tourist draw.
World aims to re-create the old days of Yellowstone National Park,
when vacationing families during the 1950s and "60s shared their
picnic lunches with begging bears through windows of their station
The 60-acre Bear World also has
peacocks, reindeer, massive elk and ducks that have had their wings
clipped so they cannot fly over the park's perimeter
Park owner Mike Ferguson bought the land
along the Snake River this May, and Bear World opened so quickly
that wildlife advocates critical of the place are still baffled it
Ferguson already has spent more than
$500,000 and has deftly maneuvered through the state and federal
regulations that could have killed last month's
Critics note that Ferguson has ripped up
about five acres of wetlands near the banks of the Snake River,
only to be slapped with a "cease and desist" order from the Army
Corps of Engineers. They also say he has imported more than a dozen
black bears by working through a loophole in the state's
no-bear-imports law that was left open for circuses and traveling
Ferguson maintains he is playing by
rules laid down by the federal Department of Agriculture. And he
insists the bears will not escape. They are contained by two sets
of electric fences as well as two 8-foot-high game
The park's current bears are temporary
tenants, he says, and he hopes to convince the state to change its
laws later this summer so he can buy and keep a permanent
collection of bears. The current troupe is owned by a Minnesota
trainer who rents the animals out for commercials and
As for the wetlands, Ferguson said he
thought he had permission to build his 2.5 miles of roads, and he
has applied for an after-the-fact permit. In any case, he says,
those are just details. While he says he has plenty more work to do
- including building a movie theater, petting zoo and visitor
center - the main attraction is open for
All that stands between a prospective
visitor and a Kodiak bear, among the world's biggest meat-eating
beasts, is a ticket, a windshield and telephone-cord-thick electric
fence. Black bears are allowed to roam freely up to automobiles
inside the park's bear compound.
The park has had
more than 200 visitors during some days of its opening week.
Ferguson's target audience: tourists on their way to and from
Yellowstone, where bear sightings are far from a sure
The good old
"Bears have always been a big part of
Yellowstone, and they're no longer there. At least you will rarely
see them," says Ferguson. "We're trying to let people view the
wildlife that they read about."
The fact that
bears are hard to spot in Yellowstone these days is by design. For
Yellowstone's first 100 years, the park did little to dissuade
visitors from feeding bears everything from candy bars to scraps of
hamburger. Park operators also opened up Yellowstone's garbage
dumps each evening so visitors seated on bleachers could watch the
animals treat themselves to a buffet of food
In the early "70s, the Park Service took
a U-turn on that policy. It closed park dumps and forced bears to
forage in the punishing natural world, to grub out a living on
bugs, nuts and berries and carrion.
biologists call the bears' return to Yellowstone's backcountry a
Ferguson sees it differently. He
longs for the days of his childhood when his family was practically
assured a bear sighting every time they drove through the gates. So
his version of Yellowstone guarantees a grizzly sighting. Recent
visitors, for example, were treated to the sight of trainers
popping marshmallows in a grizzly bear's
"These bears don't eat ants and maggots
like bears in the wilderness," says Bear World employee Steve
Byington. "They eat grape jelly and honey."
Ferguson says he hopes to use the exhibit to
teach people about bears, but he also has entertainment on his
mind. All of the bears in the park have been bred in captivity and
many have acted in television and movies. Recently, three of the
park's grizzlies were shipped to Toronto to do a commercial for
Rice Krispie treats. A big male bear will wear an apron and play
mama bear in the commercial.
"And the cubs get
to wear raincoats and backpacks and go to school and eat their Rice
Krispie treats," says bear trainer Chris Koivunen. Ferguson hopes
to keep the show going at his park once he gets his theater
"They may (show) a segment of the movie
they did and then have them re-enact it on the stage," he says. "It
will be pretty cool."
"I'd call it obscene,"
says Ted Chu, a regional wildlife manager for the Idaho Department
of Fish and Game. "Particularly the idea of having performing
Bear World staff disagree. "I think what
Mike is trying to do with this park is educate people and change
their perceptions," Koivunen says. "If we can get carfulls of kids
coming through and seeing these bears playing and running in their
own natural (setting) ' then maybe the next generation will allow
them to be in the wild."
Says Marv Hoyt of the
Greater Yellowstone Coalition, "I just think it's a sad commentary
on our society, that we have to go through some Disney World-like
park to see wildlife."
Dan Egan writes for the
Salt Lake Tribune.
* Idaho Department of Fish and Game,
600 S. Walnut, Box 25, Boise, ID 83707
* Yellowstone Bear