grizzly bear


From Yellowstone Wildlife: A Watchers Guide 
by Todd Wilkinson.


Guardian of the Wilderness

In the lower 48 states, no mammal species is more daunting than the grizzly bear. Large, nocturnal, and rare, the grizzly embodies the primeval wilderness, and its mere presence is enough to make human hearts palpitate. 

As powerful predators, grizzlies are often viewed as man's fiercest rival. They can outsprint a horse, and they weigh as much as 1,000 pounds, Yet sadly, the advance of human civilization into bear range has spared less than two percent of the animals former territory. The scarcity of grizzlies has heightened public concern about the great bear's survival. 

In 1975 the grizzly was formally listed as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act. Interpreted as a warning by scientists, the classification meant that if drastic action was not taken to protect bear habitat and reduce the number of bear deaths in the lower 48 states, the species would soon become extinct. 

The Yellowstone ecosystem is one of only two geographical regions south of Canada where grizzlies have managed to survive in viable numbers. Federal scientists place the Yellowstone population at no less than 250 bears in the park and surrounding national forests. 

Bear management today is dramatically different than it was when grizzlies were common roadsite attractions. To promote a more natural environment, the national park closed its open-pit dumps and steered bears away from human food to more natural staples, such as young elk, trout, bison carrion, pine nuts, grasses, roots, and berries. While fewer bruins inhabit the roadside as a result, the opportunities for seeing grizzlies are still abundant for those with solid understanding of bear behavior and a little luck. 

Grizzly bears are omnivores, meaning that they eat both meat and plants. In fact, they're the second-largest omnivores in North America (dwarfed only by the polar bear). When taxonomists first encountered grizzlies during the 19th century, the bear's brawny size and aggressiveness no doubt inspired it's scientific name, Ursus arctos horribillis. The common name Ursus arctos came later, when taxonomists recognized that grizzlies were the same as European brown bears. While grizzlies can indeed be dangerous if approached too closely, to suggest they are horrible discounts their rightful place as guardians of the wilderness. 

Wildlife watchers would look for certain physical characteristics to help distinguish grizzlies from black bears. Grizzlies are generally larger, both in girth and weight. Males, called boars, can attain weights of 1,000 pounds, while females, known as sows, reach about 600 pounds. 

The hue of a grizzly's coat may range from tawny cinnamon to light brown or even black. Some grizzlies are flecked with recognizable "silver tips", creating a "grizzled" look that is partially responsible for the bear's name. A feature associated with grizzlies is the shoulder hump, which actually is an area of well-defined muscle used to dig for rodents, insects, and plants. Another trademark is the grizzlys dish-shaped face. 

During the long winter months in Yelowstone, grizzlies hibernate in underground dens, where mother bears give birth to their cubs. Hibernation, a process synonymous with sleep, enables bears to live off fat deposits acquired during the spring, summer, and autumn. Bears have a unique adaptation when it comes to pregnancy. While breeding between boars and sows occurs in early summer, a female is able to delay development of the fetus for months, until she has begun hibernation in the den. During the time of winter sleepiness, the fertilized egg grows in the mother's womb over a gestation period of 45 to 60 days. Although a sow may show no sign of pregnacy in late autumn, she emerges in the spring with a brood of one to three cubs. 

Emerging from their dens in late March, solitary males are the first to wake from hibernation. Sows, emerging later, are very protective of their cubs, and will not hesitate to charge intruders whom they think are threatening their babies. This behavioral train, perhaps more than any other, accounts for dangerous human encounters with bears in Yellowstone. 

According to park rangers, no wildlife question is asked more frequently than, "Where are the bears?" The second most common question may be "How many people are attacked and killed by bears in Yellowstone each year?" 

Statistics indicate that during the park's first hundred years (1872 to 1972) fewer than a dozen people were fatally mauled by bears, though scores were injured when they ventured too close to foraging bears or females with cubs. Never, under any circumstances, should you approach a grizzly bear. 

The trick to locating and safely viewing bears along the roadside is to consider several factors - the time of day, the type of habitats, and the tools you carry. 

Successful nature photographers report that the twilight hours of early morning and late evening offer the best opportunites for seeing grizzlies. During these hours, grizzlies move to "the fringe" between woodlands and meadows, where they scavenge for natural snacks including elk calves. At areas specified, scan the edges of the timber. Notice that each is near a good source of water-a river, marsh, or lake - that is also used by other wildlife. 

Seeing a grizzly requires patience and a keen eye. As spring moves into summer and early autumn, grizzlies migrate into the high country, and they may occasionally be seen above the timber line in evaporating snow fields. At each of the locations cited in this book, visitors may be able to spot a grizzly with the naked eye. A tripod will help steady your scope or camera, if you use one. 

Near some roadside locations, you may find evidence that a grizzly traveled though the area prior to your arrival. Bear scat (feces) resembles the human variety, and provides hints about what the animals are eating. If you investigate bear scat in the spring, you may find evidence that bears have been consuming spawning trout or carrion from winter-killed elk, bison, and deer. During summer and autumn, bears feed on berries, plant roots, white-bark pine nuts, and insects. 

Among the other indicators of grizzly presence are paw prints. All members of the bear family are plantigrade, meaning that they walk on the flats of their feet instead of walking on their toes. Due to their weight, grizzlies may leave behind an indented print in the mud and snow, which outlines their paw and front claws. Like humans, grizzlies have five toes, though the biggest toe lies on the outside of the foot, not on the inside. If you see a grizzly, report the sighting to a ranger. The infomation may be useful to biologists who are tracking the movement of bears around the park. Try to notice, if you can, whether the animal is wearing a radio collar. Approximately one of every five bears in Yellowstone has been equipped with a collar that can be tracked via radio telemetry. The collars enable biologists to learn more about bear behavior, and will ultimately help us undertake measures to ensure the survival of the species. 

Park your vehicle only at designated turnoffs, and observe the normal etiquette of safe driving. To repeat what was said earlier, never approach grizzly bears. Allow them to pursue their normal activities, and you will thereby learn far more about them than if you forced them to react to your approach. 

Where to Find Grizzly Bears

There are several suggested locations: 

- Along Dunraven pass from Canyon Village north past Mt. Washburn and toward the Tower-Roosevelt Area. Just off the northern slope of 8,850 - foot Dunraven Pass, north of the near Chittenden Road turnoff overlooking the Antelope Creek drainage. Antelope Creek is close to all hiking, so it can provide an undisturbed refuge for bears. The result is that the road offers what many consider to be the best vantage point for finding bears in Yellowstone during the late spring, summer, and early autumn months. When bears attract crows, park rangers attend to the scene to restrain eager photographers and potential bear feeders, and to offer helpful information. 

-Along the Yellowstone River from its outlet at Yellowstone Lake (near Fishing Bridge) north into Hayden Valley, the site during ancient times of a giant lake bed. Once you arrive in the open expanse of Hayden Valley, watch for overlooks on the east side of the highway and try to locate bears wandering across the undulating meadows as far back as the treeline. Dawns in early summer are the best times. 

-Lamar Valley. From the Roosevelt developed area east toward the park's northeast entrance at Cooke City, Montana, wildlife watchers can find ideal habitat for grizzlies and for other large mammals. Here, the Lamar River meanders in close proximity to the roadside. Be alert as you watch for bears in the river bottom, and near the treeline across the river. 

-The east park entrance and the southern tip of Yellowstone Lake's West Thumb. Many grizzlies are spotted near the east park in the spring and fall, while regular reports emerge of grizzly sighting near the Grant Village development during the late spring and early summer, as cutthroat trout spawn in streams that flow into Yellowstone Lake.  Continue to the next page, Lynx.

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