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:
- Personal Space
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.
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.
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
Despite over 4 million people visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks annually, negative bear encounters are rare. The last fatal bear encounter was in 2015 and there have been no major conflict issues inside the parks since. of the over 4 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park annualy only one person has been killed in the last 3 years! There were no major conflict issues inside the parks in 2016.
Preventing encounters is key but if one does occur there are several important things to remember. First, talk to the bear with arms raised to let it know you are there. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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