Begging bears are back in Idaho

  • NATURE PHOTO: Bear jam at Yellowstone Bear World

    Dan Egan photo

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.

Less 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.

Yellowstone Bear 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 wagons.

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 fence.

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 exists.

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 opening.

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 animal shows.

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 fences.

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 movies.

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 business.

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 thing.

The good old days

"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 scraps.

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.

Park biologists call the bears' return to Yellowstone's backcountry a great success.

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 mouth.

"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 built.

"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 bears."

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.

You can contact ...

* Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 600 S. Walnut, Box 25, Boise, ID 83707 (208/334-3700);

* Yellowstone Bear World, 208/359-2440.

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