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Ask anyone entering the West Yellowstone visitor’s center, “What animals would you like to see in Yellowstone ?” Ninety percent of the time, the answer includes ‘bears!’
Bears hold a timeless fascination with a history that originates with man’s own. A Native American legend tells of a great bear awakening from its long winter sleep and racing across the sky. Pursued by hunters through the northern horizon, at last it is wounded. Slowly it rears up in the autumn sky, then falls upon its back, as blood seeps from its wounds upon the earth and stains the leaves red. Through the winter the Great Bear lies upon its back, only to be restored the following spring . This endless hunt is the story of the Big Dipper (the stars of the handle being the warriors and the cup being the bear itself). (Quoted from Bear Ecology in Yellowstone – an Electronic Field Trip, National Park Service)
Today, our impressions of bears range from the cute, cuddly teddy bears of our youth to the ferocious hunters depicted on television specials and bad movies. In reality, most of us don’t possess a great deal of accurate knowledge about bears. Learning about them will increase your ability to spot them in the park and understand their behavior.
Yellowstone Park is inhabited by two species of bears – black bears and grizzly bears. The Park Service estimates that there are approximately 500-650 black bears and 300-600 grizzlies in the Park. (The black bear is America ’s only native bear.) Grizzlies will usually live 12 to 20 years and black bears up to15 to 20 years.
The name “black” bear can be confusing because black bears range in color from blonde to cinnamon, brown to black. In fact, only about half of Yellowstone ’s black bears are actually black. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are actually a subspecies of ‘brown’ bear. The tell-tale distinguishing color characteristic is the silver-haired grizzled tips on the hair of a mature grizzly. Yellowstone ’s grizzlies also often have a light brown girth band.
Size does matter when deciding whether it is a black or grizzly. Full grown black bears are about half the size of a full-grown grizzly, with males weighing up to 700 pounds and females up to 400 pounds. A full grown grizzly measures about 3 ½ feet high at the shoulder, while a black bear is only three feet tall.
Other distinguishing features to look for are in the rump and shoulder areas. Black bears will walk with their rump higher than their shoulders, while grizzlies do not. Most grizzlies also have a “hump” over their front shoulders. This is a large muscle mass that varies in size by bear. However, some grizzlies never develop a hump. The profile of a bear’s face can be another clue, if you are close enough to see it. A black bears profile is straight from ears to nose, while a grizzly’s profile looks like a dish with a snout.
Determining a bear’s species by its track requires a little knowledge. Many people automatically assume a grizzly track is always larger than that of a black bear. But, this is not necessarily true. Kevin Sanders (www.yellowstone-bearman.com) uses this more specific method when comparing the footprints of black and grizzly bears. “Looking at the front toes only, draw an imaginary straight line across the bottom of all toes on one of the front tracks only. If all of the toes line up above the straight line, it’s a grizzly bear. If the lower half of the little toe goes into or below the line it is still considered a grizzly track.”
In 2003 (the most recent data available), there were 1746 reports (by visitors and staff) of bear sightings and sign recorded in the park. This included 1003 reports of grizzly bears, 636 of black bears, and 107 of unidentified species of bear. Your chance of spotting a bear improves if you understand where they feed and when. Black bears tend to feed in and next to forested areas and clearings. Their shorter, more curved claws are best for climbing, and not digging. They often climb trees looking for food sources such as nuts.
Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are stronger with larger shoulder muscles and longer, straighter claws designed for digging. Because of this, grizzlies can forage through soils. Their expanded diet can include roots, bulbs, and tubers, along with the rodents found in these areas. In the summer, you can more easily spot grizzlies in open meadows, in wet areas and along streams.
Black bears feed throughout the day, while grizzlies are more active at dawn and dusk, or at night. The best locations to spot black bears include Tower Falls, the Lamar Valley and roads around Roosevelt Lodge. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are spotted more frequently between Canyon and Fishing Bridge, northern ranges of the Park and in the Mount Washburn area. This summer, there were numerous grizzly sightings from the pullouts on the backside of Washburn Pass.
Bears constantly range looking for food. How far they will range depends on gender and the availability and abundance of food. The availability of food also varies by year, depending on weather and unusual events like forest fires. Generally, the more food, the less bears roam. An adult grizzly male will range from 813 to 2,075 square miles, four to six times further than a female grizzly. During the summer, bears (even sows and cubs) move between different food source areas, bedding down nightly where convenient. Black bears have a much smaller home range; 6-124 square miles for males and 2-45 square miles for females.Black bears will eat almost anything that they can find from grasses to eggs, fish to carrion. A grizzly’s diet consists of approximately 80 to 90 percent green vegetation, nuts, seeds, berries, and roots.
Bears close to Yellowstone Lake feed heavily on cutthroat trout, especially during the spawning season. Grizzlies are known to fish in 36 of Yellowstone Lake ’s stream tributaries. This is also one of the reasons that grizzlies are more frequently seen in the Fishing Bridge area.
During the spring and summer, bears will scavenge for winter-killed elk and bison carcasses, road kills, and carcasses more recently killed by wolves and cougars. Some of our best grizzly sightings have been along the Lamar Valley road and across the Yellowstone River throughout the Hayden Valley .
Yellowstone grizzlies and wolves have a very dynamic relationship when it comes to food. The Mollies Wolf Pack lives in a remote, northern section of Yellowstone with one of the thickest concentrations of grizzlies. The bears have learned how to follow the wolf pack and their kills, and in the past one or two grizzlies would show up 4-5 hours after a kill to claim the carcass. This year, observers noticed a new grizzly behavior. This summer a group of multiple grizzlies takes over the kill quickly, sometimes in less than an hour. This limits the feeding by the wolf pack and forces them to hunt more elk. This grizzly behavior may force the Mollies into finding a new northern location. But conversely, if the wolves leave, the grizzlies will have to find other, more difficult food sources.
Bears take advantage of seasonal food sources like berries. Wildberries, and especially blackberries, are a staple. This year there is an abundance of wild fruit in lower elevations, especially huckleberries, chokecherries, buffalo berries, serviceberries and wild plums. These fruits are found along stream-side thickets in dense vegetation.
Whitebark pine seeds (more than 50% fat) are also a primary, and preferred fall food source for grizzlies. Whitebark pines grow at high elevations and exposed sites near the timberline. One bear spotting tip is to watch for red squirrels among whitebark pines. Red squirrels cache thousands of whitebark pine seed cones in a single location called a midden, formed from piles of debris and old cones. Grizzlies track red squirrels to these middens. In fact, digging through these piles is the most frequently documented fall grizzly activity. Female grizzlies require more fat stores for both reproduction and hibernation and will consume twice the amount of whitebark pine seeds as a male.
If there is a good whitebark pine cone crop, they will spend almost the entire fall feeding exclusively on this food source. And in bumper years, bears will emerge from hibernation and immediately start foraging for any remaining seeds. They can smell a cache even under six feet of snow!
During the late summer, fall and early winter, bears spend most of their time feeding in preparation for winter hibernation. This period is called “hyperphagia.” Bears seem to forage frantically, almost the entire day with only short rest periods. Both black and grizzly bears dramatically gain weight during this time, up to forty pounds per week.
This hyperactive feeding period means that bears are moving and more visible. Typically, the number of ‘bear jams’ (people stopped along the road and craning to see a reported bear) increases in more bear-active areas such as Tower, Swan Lake Flats, the Yellowstone River in the Canyon area and in Lamar Valley.
Pullouts along the north loop are often abundent with a variety of bear attracting plants, roots, seeds etc and the bears can blend in easy you can be standing next to a bear without knowing it ... use caution in these areas.