Grizzly & Black Bear

NPS Photo

Yellowstone tales of bear road jams, park visitors feeding bears, and tourists lining bleachers to watch as bears struggled over dumpster food flooded America between 1930 and 1970. Visitors across the world flocked to Yellowstone, desperately searching for their own bear tale; most achieved what they came for since the park’s bears were so habituated to the presence of humans and human food. However, these legendary tales came with a price. During this era of abundant bear sightings, an average of forty-six people were annually injured in tussles with cantankerous bears. The National Park Service knew it had to intervene if the park were to continue as a safe family vacation destination.

And intervene it did. During the early 1970s, the National Park Service enforced a “no bear feeding” rule and closed the park’s open garbage dumps. Despite visitor disappointment, the bears gradually retreated away from public view and learned to rely upon natural food sources. Today, bears are still sighted within the park’s grassy areas, including Hayden Valley and Mount Washburn, and occasionally around the park’s geysers and rivers. However, today’s risk of a close encounter with a bear is relatively low.

Featuring a unique ecosystem that provides bears with both vegetation and animals as abundant food sources, Yellowstone is home to approximately 400 grizzlies and over 550 black bears (although researchers admit this is just a speculation due to the difficulty in tracking the solitary creatures). Although both species of bears rely on a similar diet of grass, tree bark, berries, insects, fish, carrion, and newborn mammals, the two animals do possess distinct differences.

Adult black bears measure just three feet high at their shoulder, with male boars averaging 200 to 300 pounds and female sows a much smaller 140 to 160 pounds. Although the bears possess only fair eyesight, they are renowned for their excellent olfactory capabilities. Featuring rounded ears, black bears possess short, curved claws and fur ranging from black to brown to blonde. Boars solitarily roam a territory of 6 to 124 square miles, while black bear sows maintain a habitat of 2 to 40 square miles.

Known as the black bear’s ferocious cousin, Yellowstone’s grizzlies average 3.5 to 4.5 feet tall from the ground to the distinctive hump rising between their shoulders. When standing, however, the grizzly becomes a massive giant stretching up to 8 feet tall! Males weigh a mighty 400 to 600 pounds while their female counterparts measure in at a hefty 250 to 350 pounds. Featuring flat, dish-like faces and curved claws frequently as long as a human adult’s fingers, grizzly bears are known for their light brown fur tipped in striking silver. Like black bears, grizzlies possess an extraordinary sense of smell, using their tubular snouts to pick up the scent of territorial intruders or fresh prey. However, grizzlies are much more dangerous than black bears, and unfortunate encounters can occur when the bear’s need for isolation is disturbed. Researchers suggest that the average male grizzly requires 813 square miles of its own space, while the female grizzly restricts her roaming patterns to just 200 square miles.

Despite such differences, black bears and grizzlies maintain the same winter hibernation pattern. Both species hide out in caves or snug dens of brush with sows waking just long enough to give birth to the two or three cubs bred during the June and July mating season. Black bear mothers allow their cubs to spend one additional winter with them, while grizzly cubs remain with their mothers for two full winters before being chased off to allow the sow to mate once again. Most wild bears average a life expectancy of fifteen to twenty years, but those in captivity may live longer depending on how well they are treated.

Yellowstone visitors are encouraged to review bear precautions prior to visiting the park. Know the difference between a black bear and grizzly, and do everything in your power to protect yourself and the bear’s safety.

Click here to read more about Grizzly Bears.
Click here for Hiking & Camping in Bear Country

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