Bears of Yellowstone

 As a tour guide in Yellowstone, one of the top questions I receive from guests is, “Will we see a bear?” Their hopes are high, but their faith is lacking, and I believe many are surprised when I mention that there are no guarantees, but their chances are good.

Many people have grown up watching Yogi Bear stealing picnic baskets or have heard stories of bears lining up along the road waiting to be fed. However, those days are long gone for good reasons. Bear sightings are still frequent in Yellowstone, although they may not be lining the road waiting for you. Roadsides are the best places to see or find bears in Yellowstone. There are two major reasons for this. First, with 250 miles of road in Yellowstone, there is a lot of habitat that is roadside. Typically, male bears get the best habitat (further away from the roads), and the sows or females are left with what’s left over. Not only this, but bear cubs are often safer in these high-traffic areas, which tend to deter other bears. Second, there are a lot of open areas along the roadways, such as Lamar and Hayden Valleys. If you do not happen to see a bear right off, stopping in a pullout and spending some time with binoculars or a spotting scope could pay off.

Yellowstone black bear

Now, I may have just made it sound like if you are heading to Yellowstone, you are going to see a bear. As a guide, I am in the park almost every day, and I have a lot of people sharing sightings with me, which makes it easier to know where bears are hanging out from day to day. As you don’t have the same knowledge that I have as a guide, I am going to provide some pro tips on how you can see a bear in Yellowstone.

First, hire a guide. Now, this may not work for everyone, but it is a good option. I know I am a guide, so why would I not suggest this? Here is my experience with a guide. I went to Chicago a couple of years ago and was overwhelmed by the size of it. I had one day to experience it, and I learned pretty fast that walking around was not getting me anywhere. Then I thought, “You are a guide, so why don’t you hire one?” That is what I did. I ended up on the river tour, covered a lot more area, and learned a lot more than if I had tried to do it all by myself. There are a couple of significant benefits to hiring a guide, and the first is what I mentioned earlier. We are out every day and keep track not only of bears but other wildlife as well. You may start your trip off by looking for a bear in Hayden Valley meanwhile for the last week a guide has known a bear was eating from a carcass in Lamar Valley.  Guides typically provide the right equipment for viewing wildlife including binoculars and spotting scopes. Both of these can come in handy even if a bear is only a hundred yards away. Then what may be the best part of hiring a guide is the knowledge they have. They will teach you about what the animals are doing and why and may provide all kinds of other information about the area while you are with them.

Yellowstone grizzly bear boar

Secondly, there are better times of the year and days to see bears. Bears hibernate, so typically, if you visit anywhere from November through April, your chances of seeing a bear are slim. Bears do start to emerge in March and show up by April, but these are typically boar (male) bears, and as I mentioned earlier, they are a little more hesitant to approach roads. By May, many bears are out of hibernation, although there may be some sow (female) bears with new cubs waiting a little longer before coming out of their dens. By the time June comes around, all the bears are active and ready to fatten up after spending all winter in their dens. June into July is the best time of year to see bears, as their food source is plentiful and their mating season is underway. As the days start to warm up at the end of July and through August, it becomes harder to find bears, and you need to be out early. September and October can be good months as bears go into a state known as hyperphagia, where they know it is time to fatten up for hibernation. Throughout the summer, the best time to get out and search for bears is typically sunrise, as it is cooler than in the afternoons or evenings. This is the same for much of Yellowstone wildlife: the animals want to be out and active in the cooler temperatures and as the sun starts to beat on their fur coats they are going to find a place to relax and keep cool for the day. 

Thirdly, knowing where to look helps. In general, grizzly bears like wide-open areas, while black bears prefer forested areas where they can feel safe with a quick getaway up a tree. Describing what habitat black bears and grizzlies like just described all of Yellowstone. You can find bears throughout Yellowstone, although some areas provide better habitats than others. Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are the top two hotspots to see grizzly bears. As both of these locations are wide open you are less likely to see a bear right off the road. This is where a good pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, and some patience will pay off. Unless you show up, and someone has already found a bear and points you in the right direction, spending time searching is how you will find one. Cover little areas at a time, looking for things that don’t quite fit in; shadows and movement are two things to start with. You are more likely to see black bears from the road as they do like forested areas, and they are more prevalent than grizzly bears. The best habitat for black bears in Yellowstone is centered around Roosevelt Junction. Although there are some areas where you can pull out a pair of binoculars and scan, due to the number of trees, it is better to search as you drive the roads. If you drive around in this area during June or July and do not see a bear, it would probably be beneficial to wait a little bit and drive the road again.

Yellowstone Black bear

As you are looking for bears, there are a couple of important things to remember. First, if you see a bear that is not black, it does not mean it is a grizzly bear. Black bears can be different colors, including black, blonde, brown, and cinnamon. You will need to look at other characteristics beyond color to determine the type of bear you are seeing. If it has a large hump on its back, a dished face, and small ears, there is a good chance it is a grizzly bear. If it has a flat face, large ears, and a high rump, there is a good chance it is a black bear. The most important thing to remember is that bears are wild and dangerous, and by law, you are required to stay 100 yards from any bear in Yellowstone. This rule is in place to protect you and the bears. If you go hiking in Yellowstone it is advised that you carry bear spray with you and hike in groups of three or more to help prevent any incidents with bears. Just because bears are dangerous it does not mean you can not enjoy them from your car or at a safe distance. 

As you are in Yellowstone and looking for a bear don’t forget to stop and enjoy the other wildlife that you come across. You will more than likely see the American Bison which is the largest land animal in North America, the pronghorn which is the fastest animal in North America, and any number of the other 67 species of mammals or 300 species of birds found in Yellowstone.

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