Living With Large Carnivores Part Two: Safety in Bear Country

We've spotted grizzly 610 and her pair of two year old cubs several times this spring on wildlife safaris of Grand Teton National Park.

 

Grizzly bears are active in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  Having recently emerged from hibernation, bears are on the move, seeking food sources ranging from winter killed carcasses, to plant roots and seeds, and small mammals.  In part one of this series we learned about how to identify grizzly and black bears, in part two we discuss ways to safely explore the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its large carnivores.  Read on to learn more!

 

 

Reducing Bear Conflict

There are three rules with bears (and many other animals) to reduce the chances of conflict.  Bears will actively defend:

  1. Personal Space
  2. Cubs
  3. Food

Like most animals including humans, bears have personal space boundaries which they will aggressively defend.  While in many instances bears will simply move away from encounters with people, sometimes this does result in defensive behavior.  Bear mothers are extremely protective of cubs, and stay with them for 2.5 years. 

Grizzly 610, pictured here with her cubs in fall of 2015 has been spotted in northern Grand Teton National Park.  Her cubs are now two years old, and the trio will soon part ways as she becomes receptive to mating! 

Grizzly 610 scolds one of her cubs on a recent Wildlife Safari of Grand Teton National Park.  After spending two years teaching them how to be bears she will soon drive them off, and the juvenile cubs will have to survive on their own in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

 

Traveling in groups, making noise in low visibility areas, and being alert to the surroundings can reduce the likelihood of surprising a bear.  If bears know people are nearby they will often move away without conflict.  People can also safely move around bears they observe from a distance, or retreat to another location.  Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park guidelines require people to remain 100 yards from predators like grizzlies, and 25 yards from other mammals such as bison or elk.

 

The final key to reducing bear conflict surrounds food.  As omnivores, bears are constantly searching for food and will eat just about anything they can find.  In the spring, bears emerge from hibernation having lost over 20% of their body weight and will be quite active searching for winter killed carcasses and other food (see our Spring Grizzly blog post for more information).  Bears will aggressively defend food, and are especially protective of human food due to its generally higher caloric content.

A two year old grizzly cub digs for food beneath the snow in northern Grand Teton National Park on a recent spring wildlife safari.  Watch for the sandhill cranes which walk past in the background, spring is a spectacular for wildlife in Jackson Hole.

 

Proper food storage is key to preventing encounters in bear country.  Both the National Park Service and US Forest Service require food storage in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem during months when bears are active.  Grizzlies are able to smell food over a mile away!  Most developed campsites have bear resistant containers to store food and other odorous items.  Backpackers must carry bear resistant canisters or hang food four feet out and ten feet above the ground.    Additionally, keeping a clean camp, cooking away from sleeping areas and never storing food in tents will help prevent bears from entering camping areas. 

 

 

What to do in an Encounter

Negative bear encounters are not common, of over 4 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park in 2015 only one person was killed in the park.  There were no major conflict issues inside the parks in 2016.  Preventing encounters is key but if one occurs there are several important things to remember.  First, talk to the bear with arms raised.  DON’T RUN, it may provoke a chase response.  Slowly back away while facing the bear even if it charges.  Bears frequently bluff charge, stopping short of their target or veering away at the last second.  We always recommend carrying bear spray, which is comprised of capsaicin powder, the active ingredient in chili peppers.  Bears have extremely sensitive mucus membranes and research has shown spray is up to 98% effective when used properly.  In contrast, research currently in press by bear biologist Tom Smith found that 40% of people who use firearms to defend against bears are injured or killed.

 

An adult female grizzly crosses the road in Jackson Hole during a recent bear jam.  When observing bears in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks it is important to follow the directions of Park Rangers and give bears space to travel across roadways.  This photo was shot with a telephoto lens which makes the bear seem much closer than she actually is to the Ranger!

 

Other Animals

The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is also home to other potentially hazardous animals.  Mythology surrounding wolves falsely accuses them of attacking people and there is no evidence to suggest that wild, healthy wolves will do so.   However, wolves do occasionally  attack and kill domestic dogs in their territory, so care must be taken to protect pets from this rare occurrence.

Wildlife Guide Laura Krusheski snapped this photo of a howling wolf from the Lower Gros Venture Pack on a spring wildlife tour in Grand Teton National Park, just minutes from the town of Jackson, WY.

 

In developed areas of the country mountain lions are increasingly coming into conflict with humans.  They typically avoid people and in rural Wyoming only 4 attacks have been documented in recent history, none fatal.  Like bears, two of the lions were defending kittens, the other two were sick or injured.  The same rules apply here for protecting yourself from a lion, be observant in the wild such as avoiding using headphones.  If a lion is encountered, face the animal, raise your arms, speak calmly, and slowly retreat.  Lions usually flee human encounters but if one attacks FIGHT!  Bear spray is effective on most animals and would be beneficial in this situation. 

 

Our friends at the Panthera Puma Project shot this video of a female mountain lion sniffing the camera near a cached animal she had killed.  Rarely seen, mountain lions range widely in the Gros Ventre Mountains above Jackson Hole, as well as inside Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

 

Despite public perception, the most dangerous animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem aren’t carnivores at all.  Bison are responsible for more injuries than any other animal due to people approaching too closely.  Moose may also be hazardous especially in the spring with young calves or during the rut.  Again, giving animals the space they need will usually prevent a negative encounter and bear spray will deter them if they do become defensive. 

 

Bison may seem docile but at up to 2000 pounds they can gallop at around 35 miles per hour and are statistically the most dangerous animal in Yellowstone National Park!

 

Keeping the Wild

The vast majority of visitors to the GYE enjoy its landscapes, flora, and fauna without any conflict, leaving with a greater appreciation of this global treasure.  Taking a few easy steps to steward our parks and forests goes a long way towards keeping our animals wild and free.  Don’t feed animals, give them the space they need to live without stress, and protect yourself with bear spray when venturing out into the wild.   Special thanks to Mark Gocke and the staff of Wyoming Game and Fish for help with this post!  For more information see:

Wyoming Game and Fish

Yellowstone National Park

Bridger Teton National Forest

Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures operates 365 days a year in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, offering half day, full day, and multi day wildlife safaris.  To learn more about joining us on a wildlife safari visit our website or call (307) 690-9533.  We hope to see you soon!

Photos and blog by Naturalist Josh Metten

A boar grizzly emerges from the woods on a recent wildlife tour in Grand Teton National Park

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the most biologically intact temperate ecosystems left on earth.  It is here that visitors have an opportunity to see the same animals which were here when the first European American explorers entered the area in 1807.  Our large carnivore populations, including mountain lion, wolf, black bear and grizzly bear have rebounded to some of the highest levels in the last century.  Coexistence and the reduction of conflict is becoming increasingly important as these animals come into closer contact with humans.  In this two part series we first explore how to identify the difference between two of our large carnivores, black and grizzly bears.  Then we discuss ways to reduce and avoid conflict with our wild neighbors. Read on for more!

 

Bear Identification

For years, people have journeyed to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks to view the sights and wildlife, especially bears.  Both grizzly and black bears are found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and each has its particular challenges with coexistence.  Though close encounters with both species should always be avoided careful identification to distinguish the two can be helpful in avoiding conflict. 

 

Unreliable Characteristics

It is not uncommon for both visitors and locals to observe a brown colored bear and assume it is a grizzly.  However, black bears are frequently observed in the parks with brown coats, see the photo below.

Cinnamon Black Bear, Grand Teton National Park.  Also notice the short curved claws, straight face, and tall skinny ears characteristic of black bears.  This is a tagged bear that is being studied by the NPS, as indicated by its ear tags.  Photo: Josh Metten

 

Body size is also an unreliable indicator.  Juvenile grizzlies have been mistaken for black bears and vice versa.  Droppings of black and grizzly bears are difficult to distinguish and vary widely depending on the type of food being consumed.  Finally, though it is much more common to see black bears climbing trees, grizzlies, especially cubs, may occasionally climb them as well!

 

Reliable Characteristics

Fortunately, bears have a number of easily identifiable characteristics which can be used to tell them apart.  Grizzlies have a pronounced muscular hump on their backs, between their front shoulders, used to aid in digging for food or den construction.  This hump is absent in black bears, who have a flat back from head to hindquarters.

Notice the clear muscular hump showing on this two year old juvenile grizzly.  We found it digging for plants and small mammals along with its sibling and mother, a bear named 610, on a recent wildlife tour near Oxbow Bend of Grand Teton National Park this week! Photo: Josh Metten

 

The facial profile of grizzly and black bears is also different, but may be more subtle.  Grizzlies display a dish shaped concavity while black bears have a more straight face from eyes to nose.  This is often most easily identified from a profile view.  Ears are often a good indicator of species.  Black bear ears will appear taller, skinny and more widely spaced than those of grizzlies.  Grizzly ears will appear shorter, more rounded and more closely together.

This boar grizzly has a dish shaped face with a depression where the nose meets the skull.  We found him in the northern part of the Jackson Hole valley, inside Grand Teton National Park.  Photo: Josh Metten

 

Black Bear faces are more straight from the tip of the nose to head.  This bear has climbed up a hawthorn tree in southern Grand Teton National Park and is feeding the ripe berries.  Photo: Taylor Phillips

 

Claws of the two species are quite different.  Grizzlies use their long, straight claws for digging which can often be easily viewed from a distance.  They are often found in open meadows using these claws do dig up edible roots, small mammals, or bury the carcass of larger animals.  In contrast, black bears have more curved claws which aid in climbing.  Black bears prefer forested areas where they can quickly climb to safety if threatened by another animal, including grizzlies.

 

The long digging claws of grizzlies are even more pronounced after emerging in spring, as they emerge thin after hibernation.  This is grizzly 610 and one of her two year old cubs on a recent wildlife safari of Grand Teton National Park   Photo: Josh Metten

 

Though we do often see bears while visiting the parks, tracks are often an exciting find which can tell us about their whereabouts.  The arrangement of the toe pads is more curved on the front track of black bears, so much that if you were to draw a line between the toe pads and the main pad it would intersect with the pinky toe.  With grizzlies, the toes are straight across and generally would do not intersect the line.  The hind feet of both species, which are larger than the front are also different.  The main pad of a black bear is similar to the print of a human foot, while a grizzly’s main pad is more triangular or wedge-shaped coming to more of a point at the heel. 

We found these Grizzly tracks on the Moose Wilson Road of Grand Teton National Park in the fall!  Photo: Josh Metten

 

Bear identification can be tricky, but can help avoid conflict situations and ensure a safe viewing experienceClick here for part two of this topic, where we discuss ways to reduce and prevent conflict with our wild neighbors of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Want to learn more about Safety in Carnivore Country?  The Wyoming Game and Fish department is offering a free seminar next week on April 24th at the Teton County Library from 6-8pm.

To learn more about a safari with Ecotour Adventures visit our website or call (307) 690-9533.  We hope to see you soon, learn about recent wildlife sightings here!

Photos and blog by Naturalist Josh Metten
 

Thanks to Mark Gocke and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for helping with this article! 

Elk are on the move, heading north out of the National Elk Refuge into Grand Teton National Park.

Spring is here.  Snow in the Jackson Hole valley are rapidly receding, with ribbons of bright green grasses following, a glimpse of summer’s bounty to come.  The region’s rivers have begun to swell with runoff, though the mountain peaks of the Teton and Gros Ventre Mountain Ranges remain blanketed with a record breaking snowfall. 

April is an exciting time for wildlife now returning to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and the mountainsides of the adjacent Bridger Teton National Forest.  The great migrations of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope have begun.  Some will travel over 150 miles on hoof, returning to summer ranges which have been resting beneath a blanket of deep snow all winter. 

Wolves are denning, preparing to raise next year’s litter of pups.  Grizzly bears have emerged in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and northern Grand Teton National Park and are on the move, leaving tracks in the soft snow.

We’ve been experiencing all of this and more on recent wildlife safaris in Jackson Hole, observing the changing of the seasons beneath the Grand Tetons.  Learn more from the latest Jackson Hole Wildlife Tour Log.
 

Migrations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Life in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks is sustained by great migrations.  Retreating from ever deepening snows in fall, big game concentrate in valleys like Jackson Hole.  This winter close to 9000 elk wintered just minutes from Jackson’s town square.  They are now moving north into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, following the melting snows.  At least 6 distinct herds of elk will return to the Yellowstone Plateau from winter range in every direction, entering from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. 

“Political boundaries mean nothing to nature, it’s a permeable boundary and they just move back and forth as their biology dictates” - Tom Lovejoy  Watch this amazing video from NatGeo to learn more about the incredible migrations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Bison, having also wintered on the National Elk Refuge, are beginning to head towards summer range in Grand Teton National Park.  Some have already crossed the Gros Ventre River and have been visible on wildlife tours in the southern end of Jackson Hole.  In the next few weeks we expect to see the first calves of spring born.  Calves have already been spotted in the lower elevation Northern Range of Yellowstone, it won’t be long now!

Led by a dominant matriarch, this bison herd was observed grazing on fresh grasses in the sagebrush flats of southern Grand Teton National Park.  Bright green color in vegetation indicates high protein and nutrient content, a caloric boon highly sought after by migrating herbivores.

Bighorn sheep remain on the National Elk Refuge but will soon begin moving up into the high country some 4000’ feet above the valley floor in preparation for lambing.  We found this juvenile near several hundred migrating elk on a recent wildlife safari in Jackson Hole.

Moose, having dropped antlers earlier in the winter are beginning to show signs of this years antler growth.  We found this one in northern Grand Teton National Park on a recent wildlife tour.

 

The Nesting Season Begins

The sounds of western meadowlarks, mountain bluebirds, song sparrows, northern flickers, and other migratory songbirds are again filling the morning air, with more species arriving every week.  Over 300 bird species call Yellowstone and Grand Teton home in the summer, a birders paradise.

Late winter snows are not uncommon in the Jackson Hole Valley.  Guide Verlin Carlton Stephens captured this mountain bluebird on a recent wildlife safari in Jackson Hole.

Osprey have returned to Wyoming from the Gulf Coast or even as far as Cuba!  Many nest on platforms adjacent power poles near the Snake River, but some nest sites have been taken over by canada geese!  Many bald eagles, ravens, and great horned owls are now incubating eggs.  Northern harrier, easily identified by their flight pattern just a few feet off the ground have also been viewed recently.  

Using large facial disks to gather sound, northern harrier fly close to the ground in search of prey in the sagebrush flats of the Jackson Hole Valley.  Photo: Verlin Carlton Stephens

Male sage grouse are gathering at lek sites to display and call in hopes of attracting a female mate.  With fanned tail feathers, males inflate special air sacks on their chests and make a boom call.  With the largest population of sage grouse of any state, Wyoming has a critical stake in the survival of this increasingly rare species.  PC: Verlin Carlton Stephens

 

Grizzlies return to Grand Teton National Park

We observed our first grizzly of spring this week, a large boar, or male.  Males are usually the first to emerge from winter hibernation, followed by solo females, females with older cubs, and finally females with cubs of the year.  We also observed the tracks of an adult female with a pair of two year old cubs in tow.  Grizzlies emerge slimmed down from their fall weight having lost up to 40 percent of their body weight!  In what is called a ‘walking hibernation’ bears spend the first 10-14 days in a sleepy state, resting frequently as they cruise across the landscape in search of food.  Grizzlies often find winter killed carcasses to feed on but will also dig up plant roots or excavate seeds stored by squirrels in piles known as middens with their long claws.

We watched this grizzly boar walking across the snow on a Grand Teton Wildlife Tour earlier this week.  It is important to stay at least 100 yards away from predators like grizzlies and wolves,  Image taken using a telephoto lens.  

 

Grand Teton National Park Wolves

We’ve been fortunate to have some great wolf sightings in Grand Teton this winter and spring.  Around 6 packs of wolves are active in and around the park, and should be denning now or very soon in preparation of spring pups!  Though they are now concentrating near den sites, wolves will still travel great distances in search of elk, their principal prey source.

Naturalist Verlin Carlton Stephens spotted this camouflaged wolf walking through the sagebrush during a snowstorm last week!

 

Welcoming Spring in Jackson Hole

With the winter ski season now over, April and May are perfect times to beat the summer crowds in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  Join us on a wildlife safari in Jackson Hole, observing the migrations and watching spring unfold.  Experience what Wildlife Ecologist and National Geographic Adventurer Arthur Middleton calls “the greatest wonder of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

To learn more about a safari with Ecotour Adventures visit our website or call (307) 690-9533.  We hope to see you soon!

Photos and blog by Naturalist Josh Metten

WYG&F biologist Derek Lemon, Jessi Johnson of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, and a volunteer prepare to take measurements of a bighorn ewe on March 14th.

What do helicopters, gps collars and bighorn sheep have in common?  They are all an integral part of research being conducted by Wyoming Game and Fish (WYG&F) and the University of Wyoming (UW) in Jackson Hole just outside of Grand Teton National Park!

Earlier in March, Ecotour Adventures naturalists Laura Krusheski and Josh Metten joined scientists for a hands on sheep capture operation just outside Grand Teton National Park.  By capturing ewes (females) researchers hope to learn more about winter survival mechanisms such as fat content, pregnancy rates, and disease transmission, key clues to conserving the species.  

 

Life on the Edge

Imagine the life of a bighorn sheep.  Your home for much of the year is windy, high elevation terrain near the tops of mountains.  Born in rugged terrain atop steep cliffs, lambs can walk within a few hours, quickly becoming used to life on the edge.  Forage here, though limited, comes with minimal competition with larger herbivores like elk.  Agile in uneven terrain, bighorn are able to evade many predators in this high elevation, windswept environment. 

Bighorn ewe and lamb on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, WY

Ewes have a conservative life history strategy favoring a long life over reproduction, which means the herd may respond slowly to sudden population loss.  Bighorn Ewe and lamb viewed on a recent wildlife tour on the National Elk Refuge just outside of Jackson, WY.

 

Disease Threatens the Herd

As tough as they are, bighorn in the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson Hole have a critical weakness.  Several different pathogens, spread to wild sheep from domestic herds in the past, have contributed to pneumonia outbreaks.  Biologists estimate that in 2002 around 50% of the herd, which numbered ~ 500 animals, died of pneumonia.  A similar outbreak in 2012 led to a 30% decline.  Trying to understand the triggers of these deadly outbreaks, in 2015 biologists began a multi year study of the bighorn herd to understand the cause.

 

Seeking Answers to a Deadly Mystery

The bighorn die-offs of 2002 and 2012 are not well understood; bacteria in the respiratory system are known to cause pneumonia but are often present in the herd without any manifestation of illness.  Biologists believe some other environmental factors must be at play.  Despite decades of research on bighorn sheep pneumonia die-offs throughout the West, this complex disease is still poorly understood. Multiple species and strains of bacterial pathogens are likely at play and may interact with bighorn population density, immune system health, or environmental stressors to trigger a population die-off.

In search of the answer to this mystery, WYG&F staff and University of Wyoming researchers met volunteers from Ecotour Adventures, the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation in the predawn hours of March 14th before loading into green government trucks to head off towards the fist capture location. 

Bighorn sheep winter on protected south facing slopes in the Gros Ventre foothills. The team staged in a nearby parking area while a small blue helicopter flew towards the herd, listening for radio signals coming from females collared back in December.

 

Helicopter Netgun Capturing of Wild Sheep

As the first light illuminates the parking area we hear the helicopter approaching, carrying two ewes suspended in slings below it.  Blindfolded and hobbled with straps around their legs, the bighorn are relatively docile.  Avoiding the use of tranquilizers allows bighorn to continue to breath and regulate body temperature normally, making net gunning a much safer option than darting.

The expert pilots and technicians of Native Range Capture Services handle the bighorn carefully, especially when lowering them to the ground from the helicopter.

The ewes are lowered carefully to the ground.  Volunteers race towards the bighorn, carrying them in yellow slings to the processing location.  We take nasal ear and tonsil swabs to test for disease pathogens, a blood sample to measure macro-nutrients and blood borne pathogens, and fecal samples for nutrition analysis.  Dr. Kevin Monteith takes an ultrasound of the ewe, checking for pregnancy and body fat. The screen reveals the skull of a developing fetus, she’s pregnant!

University of Wyoming researchers swab a bighorn ewe for pathogens.

Masters students from the University of Wyoming take a tonsil swab from a blindfolded ewe to test for pathogens.

Working efficiently, we process the each bighorn in about 15 minutes before they are prepared for release. Some are picked back up by the helicopter and shuttled to their capture location, others are released by hand near the processing site.  Once the seventh is released we head to our second location. 

We relocate to the National Elk Refuge at the southern end of Jackson Hole for the last 7 bighorn captures.  The sun is now high in the sky and warm temperatures are causing snow on the valley floor to melt quickly.  Sheep Mountain stands 4000’ feet above us to the east; it’s good lambing habitat that many of the ewes we’ve seen today may seek out in the spring to begin raising the next generation.

Researchers release a bighorn ewe in the Gros Ventre Mountains near Jackson Hole.

Volunteers from the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, USFS biologist Kerry Murphy, and Troy Fiesler and Derek Lemon of WYG&F release a collared female bighorn into the Gros Ventre Mountains. 

 

The future of bighorn sheep in Jackson Hole

Biologists hope this study uncovers some of the population or environmental factors which may be influencing disease outbreaks.  If so, management actions may be able stem their frequency, helping the herd persist.

Ecotour Adventures Naturalists assist with bighorn sheep research.

Ecotour Adventures guides Laura Krusheski and Josh Metten hold a bighorn ewe, keeping it cool in the shade, while WYG&F biologist Derek Lemon fits it with a GPS collar to track the bighorn’s movements over the next year.  Photo: Jessi Johnson

Disease isn’t the only factor which affects the survival of bighorn however.  Protecting habitat, especially in winter when bighorn and other animals are most vulnerable is critical.  Protecting habitat doesn’t just mean preventing development, it includes protecting wildlife from detrimental human disturbances. That’s why Ecotour Adventures is a proud sponsor of the Don’t Poach the Powder Campaign run by our friends at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and our local land management agencies.  Maps of closure areas are available via the campaign, learn more here.

We thank the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, University of Wyoming and others for the opportunity to learn more about these amazing animals, and contribute to their conservation for the future.  To learn more visit the Wyoming Cooperative Unit Project Page.

Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures offers single and multi day trips through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks year round, to join us exploring the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem visit our website or call 307-690-9533. We hope to see you soon!

Words and Photos by Naturalist Josh Metten