The smallest and most common bear in North America, the American black bear lives primarily in the forests within the Crown of the Continent. Omnivores, their diet consists of vegetation in the form of roots, young shoots from trees, shrubs, berries, fruits, grasses, nuts and buds, along with insects and even the occasional carcass. They also raid the nut caches of squirrels, steal eggs from bird nests, and dig honeycombs out from trees. Black bears remain dormant in dens for the winter months, reducing their metabolism and going without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating until spring.
On the east side of Glacier, some grizzlies spend all summer in the lowland meadows and aspen groves, returning to the high country only to hibernate. Others spend springtime in the valleys, dining on the succulent early growth, but then return to the high country for the rest of the growing season. Studies have shown that feeding habits are not a one-way energy exchange. Grizzlies use their long claws and powerful shoulder muscles to dig for glacier lilies in early summer. The digging releases nitrogen to the soil and glacier lilies in subsequent years are larger and more abundant in grizzly digs. Huckleberry seeds are spread in bear droppings, complete with the perfect fertilizer for germination.
Listed as threatened in the contiguous United States and endangered in part of Canada, grizzly bears will normally avoid humans when possible. Human development of land in the region has resulted in habitat fragmentation for the species, while declining crops of whitebark pine nuts may affect their food availability. As grizzly bears have a very low reproductive rate, these pressures are seen as increasingly detrimental to maintaining healthy populations.
Size and/or color are not reliable indicators of species. Use the chart at right to help you tell the species apart.
Bears are large and potentially dangerous animals. Read more about bear safety before hitting the trail. Report any bear or unusual animal sightings to the nearest ranger immediately.
Pioneering studies of DNA in hair and scat have given scientists new tools for estimating bear population numbers in the park. Barbed wire hair snags were used to collect hair samples from grizzly bears throughout the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem as part of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project. DNA was extracted from from bear hair collected along survey routes and from systematically positioned hair snag stations. This project used this technique in conjunction with statistical models to estimate the number of grizzly bears inhabiting the ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park.
As a result of this project, and after collecting and analyzing a staggering 34,000 hair samples, the latest estimates hover around 300 grizzly bears and 600 black bears, but refinements are constantly improving the accuracy of the estimate.
Radio collars are invaluable tools which allow bear researchers and managers to gather survival and reproductive data on individual bears. Once enough data is accumulated, it becomes possible to mathematically estimate trends in the grizzly population.
Managers of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (of which Glacier National Park is a part) are striving to keep 25 bears (primarily females with cubs) radio collared with state-of-the-art GPS/ARGOS collars. These collars locate themselves through the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system and then transmit their location to researchers through the ARGOS satellite system. This provides bear researchers and managers with invaluable data, including near real-time location information about individual bears.