Smokey Bear – A Short History of the New Mexico Bear Cub

Source: US Global Legal Monitor

Growing up in the southwest in the 1960s and 1970s, I was keenly aware of the dangers of forest fires and remember the images and campaigns headed up by Smokey Bear. I knew that Smokey was based on a real bear cub who had been rescued from a forest fire but I knew nothing else about his history until I recently read an article about Capitan, New Mexico.

According to the U.S. Forest Service website on Smokey, the original Smokey Bear was a fictional bear dreamed up as a symbol in 1944 for the Forest Service’s campaign on forest fire prevention. However, in 1950, his name was bestowed on a bear cub who was rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico.

There were two back-to-back forest fires in early May 1950 in the Capitan Mountains, which are part of the Lincoln National Forest. The first began on May 4th and burned about 1,000 acres before it was brought under control on May 6th. On that same day, however, a second fire, the Capitan Gap fire started and, due to high winds, it quickly raged out of control. On May 9th, firefighters from Taos Pueblo and soldiers from Fort Bliss discovered a tiny North American Black Bear cub who had survived the fire. The soldiers rescued the cub whom they named initially named Hotfoot Teddy. Shortly thereafter they changed his name to Smokey Bear after the fictional character. A New Mexico game warden named Ray Bell realized the cub needed specialized attention and arranged for the cub to be flown to Santa Fe for treatment by veterinarian Dr. Ed Smith.

After recovering, the bear cub was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  According to Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, 1998, the bear was flown to Washington and met by a company of dignitaries, including Senator Chavez of New Mexico.

In 1952, Congress passed a law (ch. 327, 66 Stat. 92) prohibiting the use or manufacture of the character Smokey Bear by unauthorized persons. The law allowed the Secretary of Agriculture to authorize specific persons to use the Smokey Bear character. This law also directed the Secretary to deposit in a special account fees collected from the authorized use of the Smokey Bear character. These fees were to be used “for furthering the nationwide forest-fire prevention campaign.”

In the meantime, as the living representative of the Smokey Bear campaign, the bear was so popular and received so many letters when he lived at the zoo, that he was issued his own zip code. Smokey lived at the zoo for 26 years until he died in 1976. His body was sent back to Capitan, New Mexico, where it is buried. The New Mexico Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department now operates a park that houses his body and hosts exhibits focusing on forest health and fire ecology. However, as a symbol, Smokey Bear lives on and in 2019 celebrated his 75th birthday as the symbol of forest fire prevention.

Smokey Bear billboard on Route 40, Baltimore / photograph by Kelly Goles

A final note on the name Smokey Bear versus “Smokey the Bear.” According to the New Mexico Smokey Bear Historic Park website, a “the” was added to Smokey’s name when a song was written about the bear so the lyrics would match the melody.