Living With Large Carnivores Part One: Bear Identification

A boar grizzly emerges from the woods 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 in Grand Teton National Park 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.  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. 

Notice the large gap between the toes and claws of these grizzly tracks.   Photo: Josh Metten


Black Bear track with curved line between toes and pad.  Notice two of the five claw marks registered in the mud, close to the toes.  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.


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

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

Elk are now migrating across the Jackson Hole valley, heading north out of the National Elk Refuge into Grand Teton National Park.

A stunning transformation is beginning to sweep over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).  For months, our great herds of elk, deer, pronghorn, moose, bison, and bighorn sheep have taken shelter in valleys, retreating from the snow covered mountains.  Now, the melting snow exposes hints of green grasses as the region begins to awaken from winters slumber.  This is what the herds have been waiting for.

I’m stopped along a road in Grand Teton National Park, watching a herd of several hundred elk run across the road.  My guests, heads popped out of the roof hatches of our EcoTour Adventures vehicle watch the powerful spectacle in awe.  Migration, happening right in front of our eyes.

Hundreds of elk, led by a dominant matriarch, cross the Antelope Flats road in Grand Teton National Park during a spring EcoTour Adventures Wildlife Tour.  

All across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, rivers of tens of thousands of animals are now flowing out of the regions valleys, following a wave of greening vegetation into the mountains.  By migrating, animals can access the best quality forage as it emerges across the landscape, an ancient strategy which has enabled them to thrive across the GYE. But many of these migrations may be at risk, and without help could be lost forever.  


6000 years of Pronghorn Migrations

Travel across the windswept “sagebrush sea” of the state of Wyoming and you will inevitably spot North America’s fastest land animal, the Pronghorn.  A relic of the Pleistocene ice age, pronghorn still possess the superior eyesight and speed they used to evade their now extinct predator, the North American Cheetah.  

Though their primary predator is now extinct, pronghorn still must migrate to survive winter in Wyoming.  And they do so in spectacular fashion. At 100 miles long, the federally protected “Path of the Pronghorn” takes pronghorn from now protected summer range in Grand Teton National Park, all the way south to the Upper Green River where they are currently wintering.

Pronghorn in Wyoming

A bachelor herd of pronghorn antelope in the Gros Ventre Mountains near Grand Teton National Park.

Herds of pregnant does will soon return along this route, arriving in the Jackson Hole Valley beneath the Teton Range in early summer, just in time to fawn. Many will cross specially designed overpasses along HWY 89/191 at Trappers Point, guided to the structures by fences which keep them off the road.  Underpasses, preferred by other animals like mule deer, complete the wildlife corridor. And it is working. Since the completion of construction, the area has seen a decline in wildlife-vehicle collisions by close to 80%, a win for wildlife and humans alike.


Marathon Migrations: Mule Deer go the Distance Across Wyoming.

For years, the “Path of the Pronghorn” has been touted as one of the longest migrations in the Americas, second only to a caribou migration in the Arctic.  But Wyoming, and the wild country of the western United States hold more spectacular migrations, hidden in plain view.

Rewind back to summer of 2016 in Grand Teton National Park.   I watch a mule deer doe cross the road near Jackson Lake, heading north.  Where did she come from?  Perhaps she wintered on the buttes above Jackson, traveling only a short distance to the southern end of the valley.  Or maybe she headed northeast through the Teton Wilderness, arriving on a private ranch in the upper Shoshone River basin.  Deer Collared by GTNP biologists have done both.

Mule Deer Doe and Fawns in Grand Teton National Park

A collared mule deer doe and fawn nurses in Grand Teton National Park.  GPS collar data from deer in the park has unveiled their migrations into Idaho to the West, nearly 100 miles northeast to ranches along the South and North Fork Shoshone Rivers, and south to the buttes above the town of Jackson

I like to think she is a relative and fellow ultra marathoner of 255, a doe collared by the Wyoming Migration Initiative in spring of 2016.  255 belongs to a herd of deer who migrate along the Red Desert to Hoback migration route, a recently discovered 150 mile long route which crosses the state.  

In spring most deer in the RDH head north from winter range near Interstate 80.  They pause to browse on greening vegetation along the Wind River Range before arriving on summer habitat in the mountains above the Hoback River, just south of Jackson Hole.

255 had other ideas.  She continued north, climbing over the Gros Ventre Mountains and dropping into Northern Grand Teton where she would walk the entire length of Jackson Lake.  At its northern end 255 crossed, leaving the park and eventually settling down for the summer in Island Park, Idaho.

In the end she had traveled close to 250 miles, an incredible distance close to 100 miles longer than any other known Migration in Wyoming.  But would she return in the fall or was this movement just a fluke? Biologists would have to wait, as her collar failed and she disappeared for two years.

For wildlife biologists in Wyoming, March represents a flurry of activity, as crews travel across the state capturing and collaring animals to study their migrations.  Using helicopters, deer are netted and brought to waiting biologists who quickly take measurements and fit the deer with new collars to track their movements before releasing them unharmed.  One of the deer carried with it an old, non functioning collar. After two years, 255 had been found, alive and well.

Deer 255’s amazing migration across the state of Wyoming and into Idaho.

The return of 255 to the Red Desert confirms the success of what is now the longest mule deer migration in America..  Ultra Migrations like this one make us rethink what it means to be a mule deer in the west. These tenacious animals are willing to go the distance to maximize their chances of survival, whether navigating hundreds of fences, avoiding cars while crossing busy highways, or squeezing through small pinch points adjacent developments.  


Protecting Migration Routes

Excitement over Wyoming’s migrations has gone federal.  In February, Interior Secretary Brian Zinke directed the Department of the Interior to prioritize working with local agencies to protect migrations on federal lands.  Working with local ranchers to modify barb wire fences, like the ones the RDH mule deer must cross for easier passage, was one of several local solutions referred to in the release.  

We’re thrilled to see the DOI supporting the conservation of migrations, a much needed step in the right direction.  Though corridors like the Path of the Pronghorn and RDH mule deer migration are being conserved there is much more to be done.  

That’s why this spring we joined the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Muley Fanatic Foundation and Wyoming Wildlife Federation in lobbying on behalf of Wyoming House Bill 0039, “Wildlife Crossing License Plates.”  Thanks to the support of hundreds of Wyomingites, the bill, which will help fund wildlife crossings across the state, passed into law, look for the license plates on all EcoTour Adventures Vehicles next year!  

Funds raised from Wildlife Crossings License Plates will go directly towards mitigating highway impacts on migrating wildlife, a continuation of critical projects developed by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other partners.  The South Highway 89 project, located just south of Jackson, WY is currently underway, and, at its completion will provide six underpassses, two fish passages, and numerous culverts for animals trying to move across the road.


Preserving America’s Last Great Migrations

I’m back in Grand Teton National Park, watching the herd of elk cross the road it’s icey, when a calf, nearly across the road slips and falls.  She regains her footing, racing back across the road with her startled herd. The elk rest, unsure of what to do, then head back towards the road.  A lead female slowly moves across, and the herd follows, increasing in speed as they follow her lead.

Elk Cow and Calf in Grand Teton National Park

Research shows that our big game migrations are learned behaviors, passed down from generation to generation by each mother to her offspring.  Elk, and other migratory species display a high fidelity to migration routes and habitat, returning to the same locations, year after year. Photo by Taylor Phillips

This ancient knowledge, this culture, is not only what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so special, but is central to its existence.  As “the lifeblood of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” to quote biologist Arthur Middleton, migrations quite literally move nutrients across the landscape.  They fertilize the soils and sustain our apex predators including mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves. The predators in turn feed scavengers, including bald and golden eagles, foxes, coyotes, and even small songbirds.

Migrations are also intertwined in western culture; today wildlife related economic activity (wildlife watching, hunting, and fishing) in Wyoming alone accounts for over $788 million in spending annually.  

But most importantly, they connect us across the landscape and are a reminder of our wild past.  May they forever persist into the future.


Josh Metten is a Professional Naturalist with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures

Now in our 11th year of operation, Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures leads half day, full day, and multi day wildlife safaris in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks 365 days a year.  Let us help maximize your Jackson Hole Experience Today! 307-690-9533 or

We’re Hiring for Summer 2018!

Share your passion for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a Professional Naturalist with EcoTour Adventures

Want to work in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks this summer?  Eco Tour Adventures is hiring for Part Time Sunset Wildlife Tour Positions for the 2018 summer season.  We are looking for personable and knowledgeable individuals with science backgrounds that enjoy sharing the diverse wildlife and landscapes of the GYE with our guests.  


Desired Qualifications

Preference given to applicants with local knowledge and direct experience in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Environmental Science, Wildlife Biology, Natural Resources, Environmental Education or related field of study

Experience with Field Instruction, Interpretation, Research and Wildlife/Landscape Photography

Clean Driving Record

Passion for the Wild Public lands of Wyoming


Job Requirements

Long hours and non traditional work week (3-4 evenings a week)

Late afternoon/evening hours

Long distance Driving in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park

Clean Driving Record

CPR/AED certification, DOT Physical (We can help with this!)


Compensation starts at $25/hr during tours before gratuities.  Part Time guides are also eligible for a matching IRA contribution from ETA. Full Time opportunities may be available for the right candidates.


Paid Guide Training includes an overnight trip to Yellowstone National Park, and field training in Grand Teton National Park with professional wildlife biologists, geologists, astronomers and more.


Apply by: sending a cover letter, resume and references to

Snowshoers explore Northern Grand Teton National Park with Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures

March 2018 has come in like a lion, two mountain lions to be exact!  We've been enjoying a rare look at these elusive cats on the National Elk Refuge just outside of Jackson, Wyoming over the past week, thrilling guides and guests alike (photos below!).  Though winter's grasp remains firm in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, signs of spring are also emerging.  Mountain bluebirds and other migratory songbirds have returned to the valley, and elk have already started spring migrations.  We began the month with deep snowfall and wolf sightings, learn more about what the wildlife of Jackson Hole are up to in the latest wildlife log from Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures!


Wolves in Grand Teton National Park! 

Wolf, coyote, and fox activity peaks in mid and late winter as all three species disperse in to new territories, mate, and establish denning sites during this time.  We've been finding wolves in Grand Teton National Park and on the National Elk Refuge the past two weeks including a pair crossing the road in this video.

Wolf in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Verlin was able to capture this wolf photo from a distance with his phone through one of our high quality Maven spotting scopes using a technique called digiscoping.  Top quality optics are essential for great viewing opportunities.


Moose Socials in GTNP and downtown Jackson

We are all used to seeing solitary moose but this winter we’ve consistently found them in big groups of up to 30 individuals out in Grand Teton National Park.  Moose can remain in areas of deeper snow thanks to their long legs, high stepping gait and preferred forage of willows in winter.  Most of the bulls have now shed their antlers, making it harder to distinguish them from females.  If you look closely between the eyes and ears of male moose you will find pedicle bumps where the antlers will grow this summer.

Even moose like the path of least resistance however.  Last Week Biologist Guide Mike Vanian captured this photo a cow moose walking on Broadway.  This is a cow moose, identified by the white vulva patch on her back end.  


Mountain Lions spotted on the National Elk Refuge!

We are thrilled to share one of our most exciting sightings in years this week!  On Saturday a male mountain lion killed a large bull elk on the National Elk Refuge within sight of the road.   To add to the excitement, on Sunday evening a female lion joined the male.  Lions were once thought to be solitary and most interactions, especially around food, would lead to violence.  Research by our friends at Panthera Puma Program has shown that Lions are actually much more social and share kills like these two did more often than we thought!

Male mountain Lions have much larger and wider heads than females, check out how much larger the male in the background (further from the camera) is than the female on the carcass! Photo by guide Chelse Grohman View more photos here!


Glimpses of the Coming Spring

Though snow total are above average in the high country, we have had a mild winter in the valley and are already seeing signs of the spring migrations.  Drive carefully as you head north into Grand Teton National Park as large herds of Elk are currently moving off of the National Elk Refuge.

Elk in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole Wyoming.

Like most other ungulates (hooved mammals), elk herds are led by a dominant matriarch who follow ancient migration routes, passed down from generation to generation.  Photo by guide Josh Metten

We’ve also noticed a visible, and audible, increase in bird species as the spring migrations commence.  In the last week we’ve observed flocks of mountain bluebirds, waxwings, crossbills, juncos, and horned larks on the National Elk Refuge and in Grand Teton National Park.  Red-Tailed Hawks are returning to the valley and rough-legged hawks are flying through as they migrate towards their nesting grounds above the arctic circle some 2000 miles to the north.  In the last week we've observed bald eagles and ravens adding sticks to their nests in preparation to incubate eggs.


Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing in the Sunshine

The recent sunny weather has for fantastic nordic and snowshoe conditions, we recommend skiing the groomed trail to Jenny Lake and taking a detour over to the Lucas Fabian Homestead to learn about the history of conserving the ranches that are now a part of Grand Teton National Park.  Our guided trips are 10% off through the end of the season on April 15th, 2018 when you book online with the code “Winter18.”

Nordic Skiing in Grand Teton National Park with Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures.

Take advantage of the spring sunshine with a nordic ski or snowshoe trip in Grand Teton National Park.  Photo by Guide Josh Metten


Grizzly Bears Emerge in Yellowstone National Park

Though we haven’t seen any yet in Grand Teton, the first bears have been spotted emerging from hibernation in Yellowstone National Park!  Boar, or male grizzlies are the first to wake up in spring, followed by females. Last to emerge are females with cubs of the year who are now rapidly growing in dens across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem!

Grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park.

Grizzlies, like this boar we spotted on a Grand Teton Wildlife Tour in early April last year are beginning to emerge in Yellowstone.  Winter killed animals, edible roots, and small mammals are among the early food sources important to bears who have just risen from winters long sleep.  Photo by guide Josh Metten.

Now in our 11th year of operation, Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures leads wildlife safaris, cross country skiing tours, and snowshoe tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks 365 days a year.  Let us help maximize your Jackson Hole Experience Today! 307-690-9533