Bears keep me humble. They help me to keep the world in perspective and to understand where I fit on the spectrum of life. We need to preserve the wilderness and its monarchs for ourselves, and for the dreams of children. We should fight for these things as if our lives depended on it, because it does.
~Wayne Lynch – from Bears: Monarchs of the Northern Wilderness, 1993
Having just returned from a trip to Yellowstone, I can honestly say this was the year of the Grizzly for me. For the first time in over thirty years of travel to this incredible park, I saw more Grizzly Bears than Black Bears. It probably has something to do with the timing of this trip – the earliest spring trip I have ever taken, and that, coupled with a late and heavy spring snow season, means many bears were still down at the lower elevations in the park.
It started on the first full day in the park when a Grizzly sow and cub of the year (COY) were spotted atop Junction Butte near Tower Junction. Even through just binoculars, they were a little larger than the usual Grizzly dots seen through scopes in Lamar Valley, so it was a great way to start the trip. The sow was busy digging on the rocky slope but I could only guess what she might be after. The tiny cub stayed right up under her, so much so that it took a little while before I realized there even was a cub following her.
The next day, a sub-adult Grizzly was spotted near the road in Hayden Valley, digging for some unseen food. I think there might have been some carcass remains under the snow as I saw the bear pulling at something larger than any rodent out there from time to time and it remained in two small patches of snow for a considerable time before moving on. A lone Raven escorted the bear, hoping for some morsel left behind. One of the viewers along the road told me this was one of two young Grizzlies that are siblings and that are now on their own (making them 3 or 4 year-olds). They have been seen feeding in this area for a couple of weeks.
In fact, it wasn’t long until the sibling appeared high on the ridge, before disappearing over the crest.
The bear closer to the road kept digging and pulling and would occasionally pause to look at the gathering crowd of spectators.
It finally moved off, continuing to sniff and dig every now and then. Then the bear suddenly stared intently off to the right. A lone photographer had broken ranks with the crowd along the road and climbed a nearby hill. He was still beyond the required minimum distance (100 yards for bears and wolves), but by separating from the group, he had become an anomaly, and had caught the bear’s attention.
The bear stopped and stood up briefly for a better view of the man on the hill, then dropped and slowly walked away, still pausing to smell and dig every now and then as it slowly passed up and over the rise.
The next morning I made another run up into Hayden Valley, just in case the bears were back. There were no bears at the first spot near the road, but a half mile beyond is a wide area along Alum Creek that stretches far into the distance on the west side of the road. After looking a few minutes, I could see six Grizzlies from one spot, the most I have ever seen at one time in the park. The group included a family of three – a sow and two 2 year old cubs. The other three bears were solo, which is typical. All were far off in the valley, requiring a scope for a decent view.
Studies have shown that Grizzly populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (an area much larger than the the 2.2 million acres of the park) have increased from an estimated 136 in 1975 to 741 in 2013. Scientists believe there are about 150 Grizzly Bears that now have at least part of their home range within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.
After seeing a solitary Grizzly high on a snow-covered slope, the day ended in a dramatic fashion with a closer than usual encounter. A group of cars was seen at a pullout in Hayden – a bear jam in the making. A large bear had just swam across the Yellowstone River and was approaching the area where a tributary entered the river. I thought there was a chance the bear might turn and follow the stream to the road so I moved the car back up the road to the next pullout. There was one other car there. I started to walk back to the crowd but looked over and saw the bear walking at a steady pace toward my pullout. It was still a couple of hundred yards away, but I hurried back to the safety of the car, hoping the bear would cross on the ridge on the opposite side of the road at a distance of a hundred yards or so.
I was wrong! The bear suddenly popped up over the low ridge just across the road from where I had parked. One other visitor was out and I hollered at her that the bear was approaching. We both were on the other sides of our vehicles from the bear and I had thrown gear into the car and was about to get in when the bear came down to the road, turned, and ambled up the road away from us before crossing and heading down the hill.
I had my 500 mm lens plus a 1.4x teleconverter, which was way too much lens for the distance, allowing only a head shot as it walked away. I could see the large bear (most likely a male) had been in a few fights and was heavily scarred on its snout and neck. I also learned that in that situation, my steadiness on the camera is very limited, so most of the images were a bit blurry.
It was a dramatic moment and one that reinforced the importance of staying near (or better yet, in) my vehicle in situations like that. The old Grizzly barely even looked our way as more cars pulled into the parking area, so maybe he is used to people staring at him in his wanderings. But as he shuffled along the creek and moved off into the valley, I felt lucky to have been one those to experience his presence. Tomorrow, more on Grizzlies and what they find to eat this time of year.