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The total population of Grizzly Bears estimated to be living in the continental United States (excluding Alaska) is around 1500-2000 individuals. A big percentage of this population lives in the vicinity of Yellowstone and the Tetons. It was my great ambition in going to these parks to see one of these huge bears. I wasn’t optimistic that we would. The bears have a reputation for being secretive and avoiding human contact and the parks, especially Yellowstone, are huge.
We saw two of these animals on our first day in Yellowstone. Our trip would have been a huge success had it ended then.
Both sightings were similar and they occurred within a time span of about 45 minutes. In both instances we were driving a park road when we encountered many vehicles parked along the roadside and a throng of spectators. On each occasion we joined the crowd and were treated to the sight of a Grizzly foraging in an open field. The first bear may have been aware of the spectators but it ignored us.
That was not the case with the second Grizzly. It was very much aware that it was being watched and eventually ran off, presumably to avoid the crowd.
These are gigantic predators. An adult Grizzly in the continental United States can easily weigh over 700 pounds. Its Alaskan cousins are substantially larger. Grizzlies are omnivores but predation is part of their lifestyle. A Grizzly is immensely strong. One of these animals is capable of taking down and killing an Elk. A Grizzly is also swift, notwithstanding its bulk. An adult Grizzly can run at up to 30 miles per hour for at least a short distance.
These bears’ capabilities dictate that one treat them with respect. The management of Yellowstone and the Tetons prohibits humans from approaching within 100 yards of a Grizzly. That sounds like a long distance but it seems to be very close once you see one in the wild.
It’s understandable that Grizzlies have a fearsome reputation, given their capabilities and the fact that they are apex predators. Yes, there have been documented attacks of Grizzlies on humans. But, these attacks are extraordinarily rare. There do not appear to be precise statistics on the number of park visitors killed over the decades by Grizzlies. Yellowstone and the Tetons have a population of Black Bears and Black Bears occasionally attack people. Distinguishing one cause from the other after the fact is not always easy. Suffice it to say that the total number of Grizzly-human attacks in the Yellowstone area over the decades numbers in the dozens at most. That, with the total number of visitors to the park over its 144-year history now approaching 100 million. There are other hazards and dangers in Yellowstone that are potentially far more lethal than a Grizzly Bear. More people are killed by Bison than by Grizzlies; more fall into geysers and hot springs than are attacked by these animals. Nonetheless, they are very much worthy of our respect and caution.
Presently, states surrounding the park are urging that Grizzlies be taken off the endangered species list and that hunting of these animals be permitted. That would be a tragedy, in my opinion. The Grizzly population remains so small that an event such as an infectious disease could decimate it. Putting pressure on the bears by hunting endangers the survival of a fragile species. Besides, I’d much rather take photos of these magnificent animals than to see one stuffed and mounted in someone’s den.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400 mm f4-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x extender, aperture priority setting. All images shot at ISO 640, f9 @ 1/400.