Finding bears in the fall

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 11:54:22 09/08/14

In Reply to: Visiting in September - where are the bears? posted by John Deere

John Deere,

Autumn in Yellowstone is definitely a more challenging time of year to find bears. It gets progressively more challenging as the month progresses. October is even tougher.

Unlike those idyllic days of June, when food abounds, and bears can just kick back and luxuriate in the abundance, autumn presents a conundrum that drives behavior. Just at the time of year when bears must really pack on the pounds, food sources shrink. Ungulate calves are larger, faster, and consequently, harder to bring down. Plus, many ungulates are migrating out of the park. Many of the bulb and root food sources are no longer available (or at least, easy to find). This is a time of year when visitors get to witness natural selection in action. Female bears that enter their dens without sufficient fat stores to support both them and a pregnancy/newborn cubs eventually will find the blastocyst that was formed in utero during the June mating system being reabsorbed into their body. In autumn, bears become hyperphagic, feeding 7x24. This means there are two types of bears to be seen in Yellowstone in fall, those that have found a bountiful food source, and are pigging out, and those that are searching for such a food source.

You are already tuned in to most, if not all, the typical bear "hot spots". Here's some info tailored to autumn specifically.

First, bears occasionally pop up in oddball places in parts of the park where you rarely see them outside of spring, like between Fishing Bridge and the South Entrance, Craig Pass, and the Firehole/Madison Valleys. From my perspective, it's not often enough to warrant cruising those areas in search of bears, unless you have some other compelling reason to be traveling through there.

Next, key the search in the historically more productive areas to seasonal food sources. For example, black bears love rose hips. Over the years, we have seen individual black bears discover a bounty of rose hips right along the road or on a highly visible hillside in classic black bear habitat on the Northern Range (between Mammoth and Tower, above Tower along Antelope Creek, and between Tower and Little America). They tend to follow the summer behavior pattern, and be out there more early in the day and late in the day, but sometimes, they are visible for hours.

Just like summer, grizzlies will assemble in great numbers around any large carcass, particularly an adult bison. That renders Hayden and Lamar Valleys both potential hot spots if a carcass shows up. The top of Dunraven Pass is a bear hot spot for both species in years when the whitebark pine crop is abundant. The bears congregate in or at the base of the trees. (The crowd of visitors will make it obvious.)

Check out high elevation open country for grizzlies feeding on army cutworm moth cocoons. Dr. Jim Halfpenny gave this explanation for why we were seeing a female grizzly with cubs spending a week or two flipping rocks in the proximal presence of an adult male, who was doing the same on the upper ridge that runs north from Mt. Washburn above Antelope Creek one autumn.

In late September, some bears are already becoming somewhat "den centric", meaning they start to wander an area progressively closer to their intended den site in search of food. In Hayden Valley, this results in a fair amount of wandering by bears, but not over a broad area.

IMHO, the best way to find bears in autumn is to emulate their behavior. Keep moving, searching for them, unless you come upon a mother lode, where hungry bears are concentrated.

Best of luck,


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