Along with wolves, the bear may be the most sought after animal to see in Yellowstone National Park. Some of the best chances to see bears are in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley; although, they frequent many other areas of the park as well.
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to bears in Yellowstone. The following list is all of the topics that this post will cover; you can click on each topic to bring you to it's spot on the page, or you can read the whole post from start to finish. Either way, we hope you learn a ton about bears in Yellowstone!
History of feeding bears in Yellowstone:
Bears have a long and complicated history in Yellowstone National Park. Since Yellowstone's creation as the world's first National Park in 1872, there has been a robust interest in bears. When visitation increased over the following decade, more and more hotels began to pop up inside the park; with all of the new hotels and their occupants, there became an increase of trash, and bears took that as an opportunity for a free and unlabored meal. When hotel operators caught wind of the increased bear activity, they designated multiple dumpsites where bears were guaranteed to ravage, and visitors were guaranteed a good time watching them.
By the early 1990s, the bear had replaced Old Faithful as the most recognizable aspect of Yellowstone National Park. Because of the garbage dumpsites, Black bears began to associate humans with food, and could be seen begging for scraps along the roads. National Park Service archives are full of old-time photos of tourists reaching their arms out the window to dangle food for an eager bear.
According to Yellowstone Park Foundation, between 1931 and 1969 there were an average of 48 cases of injury to visitors, and over 100 cases of property damage EACH YEAR caused by bears.
Luckily, starting in the 1970's the Park Service recognized the absurdity of openly feeding wildlife, they banned visitors from feeding bears, set up bear-proof trashcans in the park, and "let bears (and other wildlife) live as unfettered and unguided as possible within Park boundaries".
Since the changes implemented in the 1970's, there has been a decrease in human injuries from 48 cases per year, to less than one case per year in the 2000's. There has also been a decrease in the number of bears that must be put down or removed from the park boundaries.
Grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list:
In 1975, the Grizzly bear was placed on the Endangered Species list. The Fish and Wildlife Service noted that four populations of Grizzly bears had been reduced to 2% of their former range, and decreased in population to 800-1000 total bears. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which encompasses all of Yellowstone National Park and includes the surrounding National Forest land, for a total of 22 million acres, there were thought the be only 136 Grizzly bears.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, made the Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the listing and delisting of any species (animal, tree, coral, etc.), protecting them from any future harm, and creating a plan for restoration. The federal agency works with other agencies (like the National Park Service), Native American tribes, states, and the public to ensure peaceful existence between Grizzly bears and humans. Since the Grizzly bear's listing in 1975, they have made remarkable recovery. The population increased from 136 in 1975 to 728 in 2019-- Yellowstone scientists believe that many areas of the park have reached their capacity for resident bears.
Since 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed the delisting of the Grizzly bear on the Endangered Species list. In July 2017, the Grizzly bear was finally removed from the list. At first this may seem like a bad thing, and to an extent it is, like the government doesn't want to protect the species anymore-- but it is because the Grizzly bear has had such a great recovery and increased in population.
There are many reasons that a species can be delisted or downlisted-- according to Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act from the Fish and Wildlife Service: "we assess the population and its recovery achievements; we assess the existing threats; and, we seek advice from species experts in and outside of the Service. To assess the existing threats, the Service must determine that the species is no longer threatened or endangered based on five factors."
However, in September 2018, a federal judge restored protection of the Grizzly bear within the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which stretches far beyond the boundaries of the park. The protection and preservation of the Grizzly bear will not change within Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks; the Park Service will still maintain their long-term monitoring system, and hunting will still be prohibited inside the National Parks.
Difference between Grizzly bears and Black bears
According to the National Park Service, Black bear and Grizzly bear "evolution diverged from a common ancestor more than 3.5 million years ago, but their habitats only began to overlap about 13,000 years ago." Learn the differences between a Grizzly bear and a Black bear below:
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and parts of northwestern Montana are the only places south of Canada that still have large Grizzly bear populations. The Grizzly is known by it's large muscle mass above it's shoulders and more aggressive behavior. They can be one and a half to two times bigger than Black bears that are the same age.
Grizzly bears prefer non-forested meadows and valleys where they can use their long claws and shoulder muscle to dig plants from soil and small mammals from their holes. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they are known to eat 266 different species of plants, mammals, fish, invertebrates and fungi. Surprisingly, the army cutworm moth is one of the highest protein foods that they consume; in the summer, they can eat up to 40,000 army cutworm moths in a single day. Typically, Grizzly bears are solitary, but tolerate others when food is plentiful. Each year, these moths migrate through Yellowstone, resting under large boulders on mountain slopes-- Grizzly bears are known to climb high into the mountains, flip over large boulders and scoop out hundreds of moths at a time. In the fall, bears experience a period of hyperphagia, where they gain more than three pounds per day as they prepare for hibernation.
Grizzly bears enter hibernation due to cold weather and food shortages (Although, in northern Montana, there have been records of Grizzly bears that do not enter hibernation. Instead, they follow wolf packs throughout the winter, and steal their kill, ensuring that they have food through the winter). The body temperature of a Grizzly bear maintains within 12°F of their normal body temperature, as opposed to a squirrel or chipmunk, who's body temperature drastically decreases during hibernation. A Grizzly bear is much more able to react quickly to danger since it's body temperature doesn't dip as low as other hibernators.
During hibernation, the bear may leave their den, but they typically do not eat, drink, defecate or urinate while in their den; they survive on the fat they stored up prior to hibernation. In the end, bears lose 15-20% of their body weight. When the weather begins to warm, Yellowstone bears emerge from their den, early February to early May.
The Black bear is the most wide spread bear in all of North America. In Yellowstone, only 50% of Black bears are black, the others are brown, blond or cinnamon. Compared to Grizzly bears, they are considered "small", but don't let that fool you, adults measure 3 feet tall at their shoulder, and male Black bears can weigh up to 315 pounds.
The main difference between a Black bear and a Grizzly bear is the lack of shoulder hump on a Black bear, and they have short, curved claws allowing them to climb trees-- but if you are close enough to see the shape of their claws, you are way too close.
Black bears prefer living along the forest edge, and are most commonly seen in the Tower and Mammoth areas.
How Grizzly bears, Black bears and Wolves get along:
All three species have historically coexisted throughout a large portion of North America. Usually they avoid each other, but occasionally meet up over food. Sometimes a bear will take a carcass that a wolf pack has killed, and the wolves will try to defend it. Typically in this fight, the male Grizzly bear will win the carcass, although a wolf pack can usually chase away a female Grizzly with cubs. However, it is rare that they interact at all, as bears are usually solitary animals.
How to hike safely in bear country
The Park Service believes that the key to bear conservation is reducing conflicts with humans. When bears kill people or damage property, the bear suffers-- they are either put down or relocated.
Yellowstone National Park, in its entirety, is bear habitat-- from the backcountry to the boardwalks. The best way to protect yourself and bears is to respect them: acknowledge that this is their home and we are simply visiting.
Usually, a bear become aggressive when it is surprised, or you go between a female bear and her cubs. The best practice to not surprise a bear is by making noise as you hike. However, it should be strongly noted that you do not need to sing, whistle and or yell "hey bear!" every two steps. Hiking in a group, and carrying on a normal-volumed conversation will be enough to alert the bear since they have a very good sense of hearing.
An essential part of hiking in Yellowstone is carrying bear spray. You can rent bear spray at Canyon Village because you most likely won't have to use it, but you will definitely be glad you have it if you encounter a bear on the trail. Carry your bear spray where it is easy to access, and always be alert when you are hiking. You can read all about what the National Park Service recommends you do in a bear encounter here.
Nomadic By Nature offers guided day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips through some of the best locations in Yellowstone. Guides have years of experience in Yellowstone, and can safely navigate the elements and wildlife.
Come experience the real Yellowstone!
Featured Trip: Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
This is Nomadic By Nature’s earliest backpacking trip in Yellowstone — while most trails lie under a blanket of snow, Black Canyon of the Yellowstone remains mostly snow-free because of its low elevation. As we hike along the Yellowstone River, you will gain perspective of how wild the canyon really is.
This region is home to big wildlife — big horn sheep, elk, deer, bison, birds of prey, and the possibility of grizzly bear, to name a few. Highlights include a raging and untouched river, amazing geology, waterfalls, wildflowers and ever-present wildlife — all combine for a powerful experience in the World’s First National Park.