Wildlife Portfolio of the Western National Parks
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THE GRIZZLY BEAR may well be said to be the most famous of all wild animals native to western United States. At one time this species ranged from Mexico to Alaska. With the settlement of the western United States and the resulting persecution of this animal, the species has been exterminated over much of its original range. Today most of the remaining grizzlies are found in the national parks, where they receive adequate protection.

Although the grizzly bear was chosen as the State mammal of California, and although Dr. C. Hart Merriam, foremost authority on this species, lists seven different kinds of grizzlies from California alone, all are now believed to be extinct within the State.

Because of its cinnamon color or phase, the common black bear has frequently, but erroneously, been called "grizzly." It would be well, therefore, to set forth some of the outstanding characters of the grizzly and compare them with those of the black bear. In general, the large size, massive legs, heavy robust form, distinct hump over the shoulders, "dished" face, long, slightly curved claws, and the silver tipping to the hairs of the head and back are all good characters of the grizzly. Contrasted to this we find that black bears are smaller in size, the hump over the shoulders is less pronounced, and the old males, especially, tend to have a Roman nose instead of the "dished" face of the adult grizzly. The claws of the black bear are shorter, usually about one-half the length of a grizzly's, and much more curved. This last character is the one that enables even an adult black bear to climb trees, whereas adult grizzlies rarely, if ever, do any tree climbing. Grizzly bears show a somewhat greater variation in color than do black bears. Late in the evening of September 13, 1929, near Lake Lodge in Yellowstone National Park, I saw 16 grizzly bears all ranging in color from a light straw to nearly coal black.

I know of one instance where a black bear was caught in the act of robbing a grizzly's store of food and as a result was torn into small pieces by the grizzly. It is my opinion that many of the so-called "unprovoked" attacks on human beings by grizzlies take place because the bear fears it is being robbed.

Black bears usually make way for grizzlies whenever they appear on the scene. However, at Yellowstone I found one rather large black bear that tended strictly to its own business and fed unmolested within 2 feet of some grizzlies without their paying any attention to him. Contrasted to this, most black bears have their perches in trees all picked out long before the grizzly bears arrive. Visitors to the national parks are advised to keep a safe distance from grizzly bears and to try to see the "bear situation" from the animal's viewpoint as well as their own.


ONE OF THE OUTSTANDING ATTRIBUTES of the female grizzly is the wise care she gives her cubs. In the afternoon of September 11, 1929, near the canyon in Yellowstone National Park, I hid near a spot where grizzly bears were known to feed. About 3 o'clock an old mother grizzly with her two cubs came and fed peacefully within 50 feet of me. (See illustration.) This mother kept her eyes fixed intently on me, and although she could not talk, she said as plainly as any animal could, "keep your distance." I believe it would have been suicide not to have obeyed her warning. Persons should never get between a mother grizzly and her cubs, or go too close to any mother bear when she is accompanied by her cubs.

A grizzly bear's litter usually numbers two; however, one to three cubs are not rare and, occasionally, as many as four may be born in one litter. On September 13, 1939, in Yellowstone National Park, near the Lake Lodge, I found two female grizzlies, each with three cubs. One group of cubs was born that year and stood about 16 inches in height at the shoulder, and were estimated to weigh about 75 pounds each. The other litter had been born the previous year and already had a yellowish color about the head. These yearling cubs stood about 24 inches high at the shoulder and were believed to weigh about 150 pounds. A grizzly bear frequently wears a white "collar" around its neck during the first year or two of its life. About the time the cub is 3 years old this "collar" gradually disappears.

Grizzly bears are extremely fond of ground squirrels and in many cases these rodents are their chief food supply. Near Sexton Glacier, in Glacier National Park, on August 29, 1931, I found many of the characteristic craterlike mounds made by the bears in digging out ground squirrels. On less than half an acre I counted six of these places where grizzlies had been digging. One large grizzly had left a track measuring 6-1/2 inches in width by 12 inches in length. In this track the claw marks showed plainly 2 inches ahead of the front pads of the toes.

It is my belief that about the only place in North America where we may reasonably expect to keep a native population of grizzly bears living under natural conditions is in our larger national parks, such as Mount McKinley and Yellowstone. These parks are of sufficient size to provide an adequate food supply and also room for the grizzlies to wander about without going outside the park to be shot by some hunter or stockman.


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Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010