Yellowstone is home to two species of bears. Visitors are sometimes rewarded with sightings of black bears or grizzly bears in the wild.
Though it is dangerous and unlawful to feed bears this used to be a common practice in the past. In fact bears often waited along the roadsides for handouts from passing motorists and entered campgrounds in search of food. Bears fed nightly at open garbage dumps in the park while visitors watched. The close proximity of humans and bears was dangerous for both species. Many park visitors were injured by bears or suffered property damage and many bears were killed or removed from the park.
Eventually the park decided that human foods should not be available to bears. Now we have special bear-proof garbage cans and visitors are very good about keeping a clean camp and not allowing bears to get human foods. The number of injuries and incidents of property damage due to bears has plummeted and bears are safer now as well.
While it’s true bears no longer line up along the roadsides or congregate at open garbage dumps, many people still see them from their cars. It’s all the more exciting to glimpse bears in their natural habitat foraging for food and interacting with their young. In 2006, bears caused over 700 traffic jams while visitors got to peek at bears in the wild being bears and doing what they do naturally.
If you would like to see a bear, think like a bear. Grizzlies often forage in open meadows while black bears prefer to stick to the trees or the edges of forests where there is more cover. During the summer months, bears often nap during the heat of the day and are more active at dawn and dusk.
Think about what foods they’re searching for: in the spring it might be winter-killed animals, newly born elk calves, and flowers. They may be fishing for spawning trout or rooting for grubs and insects, roots, tubers and other vegetation or small mammals. Berries and whitebark pinenuts are tasty treats in the fall as are army cutworm moths in the high elevation talus slopes.
They are amazing to watch. Just remember that Yellowstone’s bears are wild and you should never surprise or approach them. Keep at least 100 yards from bears at all times and do not disturb their natural behaviors—they have a lot of eating to do in the summer and fall to be healthy enough to have cubs and be able to sleep all winter long.