Bears in Yellowstone National Park and visitors who watch bears cost money, both in terms of the park's approach to bear management, and its approach to "bear jams" on the park's roads. And, interestingly, a study shows that a majority of Yellowstone visitors would pay as much $50 extra dollars in entrance fees to ensure the opportunity to see bears in the park.
Once upon a time, bleachers were actually set up in the park and garbage made available to bears to provide viewing opportunities. Of course, that practice went out long ago as wildlife managers recognized the wisdom of letting bears be bears and teaching humans not to feed bears. These days most bears are seen with binoculars...or along the Grand Loop Road that circles the park's interior. And when bears appear near those roads, vehicles stop to allow their occupants a closer look, and photograph, of the bruins.
But as the authors of The Economics of Bear Viewing (attached) point out, it costs money to allow such behavior by bears and humans.
Today, rather than capturing and relocating or hazing bears that forage in roadside meadows, Park management focuses on managing visitors viewing roadside bears, in an effort to promote education and appreciation for the Park's resident wildlife, as well as to allow the bears to continue using roadside habitat. This approach has been largely successful; while traffic jams on the Park's roads due to drivers stopping to view bears, referred to as "bear jams," have been on the rise, there have been no associated bear-inflicted human injuries. Nonetheless, allowing bears to use roadside habitat does not come without a price. The number of bear jams, as well as the total Park staff time required to manage bears, has grown exponentially over the years. In 2011, the year with the most recorded bear jams, Park staff spent 2,542 personnel hours managing visitors at 1,031 bear jams, providing traffic control and monitoring of visitor behavior to ensure safe viewing opportunities. On some days, there are such a large number of bear jams occurring simultaneously that there is not enough Park staff to respond to them all, leaving Park visitors interacting with grizzly and black bears unattended.
With those concerns in mind, the authors set out during the summer of 2009 to survey Yellowstone visitors. Of the 978 visitors contacted, 663 filled out and returned survey forms. Of those, 95 percent said they would pay an extra $1-$15 to enter the park if it would help ensure they'd see a bear during their visit. Eighty-five percent said they'd pay an extra $35, and 64 percent said they'd pay as much as an additional $50.
Conversely, if bears were not so readily visible in the park, the authors concluded, spending by park visitors would decrease by about $10 million a year and cost the local economy 155 jobs. Of course, they also note that the loss might not be so great if Yellowstone visitors substituted other wildlife viewing for bear viewing.