Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Bears at Yellowstone

The grizzly bear once claimed much of the North American continent as its territory, roaming as far east as the Mississippi River and south into Mexico. With the influx of settlers in the mid to late 1800's, the grizzly retreated or was hunted until it was removed from much of its native range. The Greater Yellowstone Area, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, is one of the last remaining strongholds of the grizzly bear in the contiguous United States. 

Yellowstone National Park has protected bears as well as all other native flora and fauna for more than a century. However, since the earliest records of the park, both grizzly and black bears gradually became dependent on human foods, of which, most was in the form of human garbage left by the ever increasing number of park visitors. Instead of relying on native foods such as trout, lush vegetation, and a large ungulate population, some bears became overly reliant on human food items, and were often times seen in large numbers scavenging at the Park's open pit garbage dumps. This eventually led to bears seeking out food from park visitors leading to numerous human injuries and property damages. It was not uncommon along the park roadsides to witness both grizzly and black bears begging for food from passing motorists. The bear thus became a very popular attraction in Yellowstone Park.

However, the consequences for bears frequenting roadsides and developments, seeking out human food, and the growing problem of human injuries and property damages led to many bears having to be destroyed by Park managers. To remedy the situation, Yellowstone Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s decided to close all the open pit garbage dumps, transport all human food and waste items out of the park daily, and enforce strict regulations on human food storage, thus making all human foods unavailable to bears. Due to generations of bears being so reliant on easily obtained human foods, many bears had to be destroyed if other methods, such as hazing and translocations, failed. The Yellowstone Grizzly Bear was placed on the Endangered Species List as a Threatened Species in 1973 as concerns over the removal of so many habituated, food conditioned bears was leading to population declines. The grizzly bear was and continues to be intensely studied in Yellowstone, and with intense and consistent management of both species of bear, bear numbers have rebounded. It is now common to see wild, free ranging bears in the Park and the surrounding ecosystem, and although the grizzly bear is still listed as a Threatened Species, grizzlies, because of intense research and management, are doing very well.

In efforts to maintain a co-existence with bears and people in Yellowstone Park, park managers enforce strict guidelines to keep bears and humans apart. A legal minimum distance from bears of 100 yards is required by people who encounter bears in the park. Food storage regulations are strictly enforced by Park Law Enforcement in both front and backcountry areas in efforts to suppress bears from acquiring human food items, thus maintaining a natural population of bears and ensuring their survival in Yellowstone Park.

Grizzly and black bears can be seen just about everywhere in the Park. Based on the time of year and driven by the acquisition of natural food opportunities, bears vary in their frequenting of certain areas of the Park. The Park has instituted a Bear Management Area Program which allocates certain portions of the Park off limits to humans in efforts to allow bears to forage without human interference. During the spring, most bears are expected to be seen at lower elevations for acquisition of winter-killed carrion, spring vegetation, elk and bison calves, and fish along certain streams. During the summer, late summer, and early fall most bears frequent higher elevations in search of later green up vegetation or insects. Largely important foods for bears during the late summer and early fall are Whitebark Pine Cones seeds. These seeds are high in fat and are needed especially during this time of year to put on fat for winter denning purposes. However, due to a large ungulate population bears can be seen anywhere during anytime of year scavenging on carcasses, and because of larger bear populations bears of both species can be seen just about anywhere people are throughout all three seasons.

The Park encourages that all bears seen be reported to a ranger as soon as possible. The Park's Bear Sighting Program has been proven as a highly successful bear management tool, and is used by Park managers to better educate, study and facilitate management decisions for bears.