Where Are All the Bears?

Bears were once commonly observed along roadsides and within developed areas of Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Bears were attracted to these areas by the availability of human foods in the form of handouts and unsecured camp groceries and garbage. Although having bears readily visible along roadsides and within developed areas was very popular with the park visitors, it was also considered to be the primary cause of an average of 48 bear-inflicted human injuries and 138 bear-caused property damages per year from 1931 through 1969 (Cole 1974).

In 1970, YNP initiated an intensive bear management program with the objectives of restoring the grizzly bear and black bear populations to subsistence on natural forage and reducing bear-inflicted human injuries and bear-caused property damages (Cole 1976, Meagher and Phillips 1983). As part of the bear management program implemented in 1970, regulations prohibiting the hand feeding of bears were strictly enforced, as were regulations requiring that human food be kept secured from bears. In addition, garbage cans were bear-proofed and garbage dumps within and adjacent to the park were closed.

Although bears are less frequently observed along roadsides and within developed areas today than in the past, many people still see bears each year. From 1980-2011 over 40,000 bear sightings have been reported to park managers. Grizzly bears are active primarily during nocturnal (night time) and crepuscular (dawn and dusk) time periods (Schleyer 1983, Harting 1985, Gunther 1991). Look for grizzly bears with a high power spotting scope in open meadows just after sunrise and just before sunset. Grizzly bears are most commonly observed in Lamar Valley, Gardiners Hole, Antelope Creek meadows, Dunraven Pass, Hayden Valley, and in the wet meadows along the East Entrance Road from Fishing Bridge to the East Entrance of the park. Black bears are active primarily during crepuscular and diurnal (daylight) time periods (Mack 1988). Look for black bears in small openings within or near forested areas. Black bears are most commonly observed on the northern portion of the park along the road corridor from Elk Creek to Tower Falls, and from Mammoth Hot Springs north to Indian Creek. Black bears are also commonly observed in the Bechler region in the southwest corner of the park. Spring and early summer are typically the best times to view bears. During years when whitebark pine trees produce abundant cone crops, bears move up into whitebark pine forests in late summer and fall to feed on whitebark pine seeds. Bears are not readily visible when foraging in forested areas. However, if the late summer crop of whitebark pine seeds is poor, bears will remain in lower elevation meadows digging roots and truffles. and scavenging wolf killed ungulate carcasses providing good bear viewing opportunities.

With visitation averaging around 3 to 3.5 million visitors annually, many bears are exposed to frequent encounters with people and traffic. These bears habituate to the presence of people and often tolerate people at distances of only 20-30 yards. Habituated bears are still wild bears and capable of inflicting serious injury or death. For your safety, remain within your vehicle when viewing and photographing roadside habituated bears. Always pull completely off of the road into paved pull-outs when stopping to view bears. Make sure your vehicle is in park and that you engage your emergency brake. Never approach, crowd, or surround bears. Running in the presence of bears may trigger a chase and attack response. Proper viewing and photographing etiquette will help keep both you and roadside habituated bears safe.

Cole, G.F. 1974. Management involving grizzly bears and humans in Yellowstone National Park, 1970-73. BioScience 24(6):335-338.

_____. 1976. Management involving grizzly and black bears in Yellowstone National Park, 1970-75. Nat. Resour. Rep. No. 9. U.S. Dep. Inter., Natl. Park Serv., Yellowstone Natl. Park. 26pp.

Gunther, K.A. 1991. Grizzly bear activity and human induced modifications in Pelican Valley, Yellowstone National Park. M.S. Thesis, Montana State Univ., Bozeman. 102pp.

Harting, A.L. 1985. Relationships between activity patterns and foraging strategies of Yellowstone grizzly bears. M.S. Thesis, Montana State Univ., Bozeman. 103pp.

Mack, J.A. 1988. Ecology of black bears on the Beartooth face, south central Montana. M.S. Thesis, Montana State Univ., Bozeman. 119pp.

Meagher, M., and J.R. Phillips. 1983. Restoration of natural populations of grizzly and black bears in Yellowstone National Park. Int. Conf. Bear Res. Manage. 5:152-158.

Schleyer, B.O. 1983. Activity patterns of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem and their reproductive behavior, predation, and the use of carrion. M.S. Thesis, Montana State Univ., Bozeman. 130pp.Yell 704

Kerry Gunther
Bear Management Office Wildlife Biologist
Yellowstone National Park
February 2012

Last updated: June 10, 2016

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