Do you know how to spot wildlife at a National Park? Look for cars parked in the middle of the highway, of course!”
Perhaps you’ve previously heard that zinger, but it really is true. Ask anyone who’s been to Yellowstone National Park, and they’ll have a story for you. These ‘events’ even have their own name: ‘Bear Jams.’
It’s not just at Yellowstone. Grand Canyon National Park has ‘Elk Jams,’ and moose have been known to cause a ruckus at Glacier. Yet nothing stops traffic quite like a bear. So, in honor of National Wildlife Day, as well as our upcoming Yellowstone & Grand Teton in Autumn photo tour, let’s take a look at the Bears of Yellowstone.
Backcountry Journeys photo guide, Ben Blankenship, wrote in a 2019 Trip Report about his group’s first encounter with a bear while on a Yellowstone & Grand Teton tour. “There are several other types of ‘jams’ encountered (at Yellowstone), but a “bear jam” is easily identified by the number of cars and the excitement on the faces of people standing along the road.”
Who’s Who – Telling the difference
There are two types of bears found at Yellowstone. In fact, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the few areas south of Canada where black bears coexist with grizzly bears. Either species can be spotted from the roadside.
It would be easy to assume that one can tell the difference between a Black bear and a Grizzly bear simply by color and size. Black bears are black, Grizzlies are brown. Grizzlies are much larger, right? Not so fast. At Yellowstone, only about half of the Black bear population is black in color. Some are brown, others are blonde, and some are even cinnamon in color. Grizzlies may be pale—almost luminous blonde, or reddish-blonde, light brown, darker brown, or almost black. And although grizzly bears are typically larger than black bears, size is not a great indicator for which species is which.
So then what can we look for when trying to determine whether we are photographing a black bear or a grizzly? Let’s take a look at a couple of details that photographers, like us, can use while still maintaining a safe distance from the animal.
The best indicators are the size of the shoulders. The grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks.
A grizzly typically has a concave or dish-shaped profile that extends from between its eyes to the end of its nose. A black bear normally has a fairly straight profile from forehead to nose tip. A grizzly’s muzzle is broader and more prominent; their eyes appear closer together and deeper set.
Grizzly bears have smaller, more rounded ears, that are much fuzzier looking. Whereas the ears of a black bear appear larger, longer, more erect, and pointed.
The Black bear is the most common and widely distributed bear species in North America, found in 40 U.S. States. They typically live in forests but also have been found to live in mountains and swamps. While they have few natural predators, both cubs and adults are susceptible to being killed by their own kind or by wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears.
Their average lifespan (in the wild) is 20 years. They grow to 5-6 feet in length and weigh between 200 and 600 pounds. Black bears eat nearly anything, including grass, fruits, tree cambium, eggs, insects, fish, elk calves, and carrion. They like to climb trees, which their short, curved claws enable them to do. Males and females without cubs are solitary, except during the mating season, which at Yellowstone is between May and early July.
The grizzly bear is a subspecies of brown bear, and once roamed large swaths of the mountains and prairies of the American West. Today, the grizzly bear remains in only a few isolated locations in the lower 48 states, including Yellowstone and northwest Montana. In coastal Alaska, the Grizzly bear is known as the Brown bear. The difference is mostly attributed to where they live (coastal areas) and what they eat (salmon).
Grizzly bears live up to 25 years (in the wild), growing to 5-8 feet in length and upwards of 800 pounds. They are powerful, top-of-the-food-chain predators, yet much of their diet consists of nuts, berries, fruit, leaves, and roots. They’re almost vegans, but not quite, as they can also eat other animals, from rodents to moose, from time-to-time.
While we always keep clear of wildlife, so as to provide them the necessary space to remain comfortable, between the Black bear and Grizzly, the ‘Griz’ is the species you’d best keep extra distance. They can be dangerous to humans, particularly if surprised or if a person gets between a momma and her cubs.
Backcountry Journeys pays a visit to Yellowstone multiple times each spring and in autumn season to explore and photograph the vibrant landscapes and thriving Black bear and Grizzly bear populations. And there will of course certainly be more than just bears. Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, and we’ll be “on the hunt” for Bighorn sheep, moose, Mountain goat, and deer as well as Canada lynx, coyote, Mountain lion, wolverine, and maybe even wolves!
Landscapers will love locations like Oxbow Bend, Schwabacher Landing, as well as the Snake River Overlook, and other locations while at Grand Teton National Park during the second portion of this tour. Want to come along? Pick from ‘hiker’ or ‘standard’ tours, as well as a vehicle-based ‘Safari’ style tour to Yellowstone.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.