Bears and rivers

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 12:02:23 05/27/16



In all my years of hanging out in Yellowstone, I have only witnessed a bear fishing once, and that was a relatively young grizzly, fourth summer, who accidentally caught a cutthroat while lounging around in the Yellowstone River on a hot summer day in Hayden Valley. He managed to get it out of the river, and up onto the bank, then watched it flop around, almost mesmerized, until the fish managed to flop back into the river, where it disappeared!

I do know from conversations with a park geologist, who was involved in the placement and maintenance of fish counting equipment on creeks that feed Yellowstone Lake, that there was a time when bears commonly fed on spawning cutthroat that swam up those streams during the annual spawn. This research was being conducted about 15 years ago, as part of an assessment on the impact of non-native lake trout on other resource components. I have not read the research results, so I have no knowledge of what the project showed. We know that cutthroat numbers have dropped significantly in Yellowstone Lake, as a consequence of predation by lake trout. The creeks being monitored back in 2000/2001 were largely in fairly remote areas. The feeder streams in the road accessible area around the Lake/Fishing Bridge area, and further south, like around Arnica Creek, are closed off to humans during the spawn, to prevent humans from scaring bears away from an important seasonal food source.

Your trip timing is good, in terms of the peak spawning period for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The problem is finding a feeder creek that is accessible.

There are numerous places where I have observed bison crossing rivers in Yellowstone. These include the Firehole River in the Upper Geyser Basin, the Fountain Flat area, primarily between the bridge on the Old Freight Road and the Nez Perce Picnic Area, and occasionally between Biscuit Basin and Midway Geyser Basin. I've seen bison cross the Madison in all sorts of places between Madison Junction and Seven Mile Bridge, as well as spots further west. The more dramatic river crossings occur in Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley. It's essentially a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In early June, you don't tend to see many river crossings, because the rivers are running high, and the newborn calves are at great risk in a crossing. During the rut, in late July and August, you see more of the large herd river crossing activity, particularly in Hayden Valley, where anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 bison gather. I have sat along the road in the north end of the valley several times in August, watching one small herd (50-150) after another cross the river between Alum Creek and the Mary Mountain trail. On one memorable morning, traffic was stopped for 2 hours, and literally several thousand bison made the crossing. In retrospect, I probably should have been shooting video!


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