Tips and Tricks: Bears in Yellowstone

This weekend Mom and I (Liza) went on a site seeing trip to Yellowstone National Park in celebration of Mother’s Day. It was quite perfect…….For the first time in all of our years of visiting the Park we saw a bison become a Mom. The freshly dropped bison calf was still wet and trying to stand up on its little legs when we pulled up. The baby was quite difficult to photograph because Mom was being very protective but I did get a few shots. Here is the best one.

Bison Calf

On top of seeing the brand new baby bison we saw a total of 23 bears; 17 grizzlies and 6 black bears. Big bears, little bears, bears up close, bears far away, bears of every make and model just coming out of hibernation. As far as bear viewing goes, May has always been our best month to spot them! For more tips on how to see bears head on over to our post on Seeing Bears in Yellowstone. That being said, while we were observing all the bears I heard a lot of confusion as to which type of bear each was. Therefore I decided to dedicate a section of this post to differentiating between black bears and grizzlies and I even have a quiz for you with our photos.


The Cardinal Rule – Never label a bear a certain species solely by color or size. There are black grizzlies and brown-phased black bears of every size!!!

Characteristics of a Black Bear:

  • no shoulder hump
  • tall ears
  • a straight facial profile
  • short claws

Characteristics of a Grizzly Bear:

  • obvious shoulder hump
  • short round ears
  • a dished facial profile
  • long claws (which can be seen from quite a distance)

Now it’s your turn to see how well you can tell the difference between a Black Bear and a Grizzly Bear. Below are images of some of the bears we saw this weekend. Take a guess of what each one is and then scroll down for the answers. Click on the images for a bigger view….. allow them a small amount of time to load so you get the optimum amount of detail.

1. Grizzly 2. Grizzly 3. Black Bear – Don’t Let the Brown Color Fool You 4. Black Bear 5. Grizzly 6. Grizzly 7. Grizzly

How did you do? Before your next trip to the park or just for an extra challenge, take Montana FWP’s Bear Identification Test. When you finish, it will tell you your score and which ones you missed, if any. Then you can exit, the submission form is only for those wishing to hunt bears in the the State of Montana.

Now to the stories of the trip. We started out Saturday afternoon with the good omen of seeing the fields at the North Entrance full of bluebirds. There were at least 50 Mountain Blue Birds which were extraordinarily beautiful and no photo can do it justice. I did attach a few for you to see though.  Click on any photo for a larger view.

From there we cruised down to the Hayden Valley where we saw 3 grizzlies. The weather was changing quite literally every five minutes bringing everything from sunshine to snow. Two of the grizzlies we saw were deep in the snow scrounging for food.

The other grizzly came out right below Mud Volcano in the sun where the snow had been melted due to the geothermal activity. Due to no place to park I jumped out of the truck seeing lots of people while Mom went to go find a place to stop. I looked up to see this young grizzly barrel up the hill and run no more that 50 feet in front of me. The bear continued right in the direction of a few unaware bystanders that were in for quite a surprise. Thankfully the bear ran right by causing no one any harm but it brings up the point of being safe in bear country.

  • always be aware of not only what is in front of you but also what is behind you – evidence the middle photo above
  • always carry Bear Spray and know how to use it
  • never approach a bear at an unsafe distance – they are WILD animals
  • never get between bears – they are extremely protective of their young and aggressive over mates

After getting over the rush of being so close to a grizzly, Mom and I headed back up to Mammoth and out to the Lamar Valley to listen for wolves in the evening. On the way out we encountered two more grizzlies but it was too dark to get any really good shots. They were really cool to see though. Out in the Lamar we didn’t hear any wolves but we heard lots of interesting sounding birds. Come about 9:30 it was really dark and time to head back to the hotel for the night. Another point of caution, animals really come out in the dark in Yellowstone and driving extra slow is a good idea. We had a number of elk, bison and deer all run across the road in front of us just in our short drive back to Gardiner.

Bright and early on Sunday morning we headed out to the Lamar Valley first to see what was out there. We started out by seeing more baby bison. They were so cute and I got some great video footage that I will be posting soon. In the meantime here are some photos.


After the bison we saw two really neat pronghorn antelope racing around in the early morning’s skiff of snow. These were two bucks, you can tell by the black patch behind the jaw, something only males have because both males and females grow horns. Here is a tidbit – antelope are the only horned animal that can shed its horns and grow them back. An antlered animal like a deer or an elk sheds its antlers every year while a horned animal keeps its horns forever.

From there we made it into the Lamar Valley to where we had a good view of a bison calf that had just been killed and on it was a wolf. Unfortunately for him the momma bison ran him away from his lunch off to scrounge for something else. I figured he wasn’t the only predator in the valley though and went back to scanning. Sure enough in came another white wolf, this one having better luck and eating in peace. From this same vantage point we could also see a mother grizzly and her two cubs. Only two people stopped, the rest just driving by and completely missing the amazing view we had. It only takes a second to stop and you could get the view of a lifetime so here is a tip to seeing the top of the food chain. If you see people off to the side of the road with a spotting scope or large camera all set up, an eye stuck in the view finder, stop and ask them what they see.  It could be something better than anything you may see all day.


We cruised the rest of the valley and came back to the wolf and grizzlies still in the same spots. Once again there was no one viewing these predators. If you care to see the red face of a feeding wolf click on the photos above. After a little more time and some far away photos we headed back to Mammoth and then south to the Hayden Valley again.  At this time our bear count had reached 16. That was a total of 14 griz and 2 black bears all seen from the road.  Along with all the bear the two wolves were an added bonus.

On the way to the Hayden we saw the brown-phased black bear pictured above in the quiz and this coyote pictured below. This coyote was one of the few animals trying to make it out in the Hayden which still has tons of snow. At some points the snow was taller than the truck but it appears this coyote wintered pretty well as his fur was thick and he looks pretty healthy.  We have seen other coyotes in the Park that look rather scraggly and scroungy like so many coyotes do.


From there we went on to see this cool bear by the Mud Volcano which was blocked off due to the high number of bears in the area.

Then we hit one of the coolest spots of the weekend! Early every spring bison carcasses wash up all over the park and the bears flock to them when they come out of hibernation. At this particular spot by LeHardy’s Rapid a carcass had washed up on the bank attracting three huge grizzlies. When we first pulled up the large male and female were just sitting at the edge of the trees which was so amazing to see. Throughout about the next hour we got to see the bears cross the road, run about through the trees, and feed on a carcass in the river. It was truly phenomenal.


After that we saw a few more bears bringing our weekend total to 23 bears. The bear in the photo above had a bad left eye and you can see it if you enlarge and zoom in. His left eye is all white like he is blind in that eye. I’m not a bear expert so I don’t know for sure but something is going on. This past weekend was absolutely phenomenal and we are hoping to get another trip in before the end of the month!

Yellowstone Trivia: Bison do not get cancer and they are thought to be the only mammal with immunity to cancer.

Bison are discouraged from leaving Yellowstone for fear they may transmit Brucellosis to area cattle.  Brucellosis is a disease that can cause pregnant cattle to miscarry.  To date there are no recorded instances of bison transferring brucellosis to cattle. Bison originally were brucellosis-free until Holsteins and Herefords were brought into their territory, carrying the disease with them.  Brucellosis was first diagnosed in the Yellowstone bison heard in 1930.  Ironically, the bison likely picked it up from the milk cows kept at the buffalo ranch prior to 1919.

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