Important: It’s vital to remember that these are wild animals, and that your safety is not guaranteed, even with a ranger present. Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will react on instinct every time, and if you do not respect their space, you will find out exactly what that means first hand. Before venturing into areas like this, please show both the animals and the locals some respect by keeping a safe distance, no matter how many other people aren’t. Likewise, if a bear were to attack, the parks or forest service will be forced to kill that bear for following its instincts. So please act responsibly.
As a wildlife safari guide in Jackson Hole, a question I was frequently asked was, “Where do I find grizzly bears?”
There are some tricks to finding them of course, but as is the case with so much, timing is everything. To maximize your chances, and because it’s impossible to say where any animal will be in the future, it’s always best to know the habits of grizzly bears to better understand where they might be.
Grizzly bears tend to hibernate through the winter in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, however sightings have occurred in every winter month. So while it’s not impossible to see them in the dead of winter such as January or February, it’s simply more unlikely.
Grizzly Bears Emerging from Their Dens
As they begin to feel the warmth of the spring season though, gradually creeping in toward the end of February, many older males will start to emerge. Though they do come out of their dens, it’s often more to simply check on the conditions and to see how much food is available. If it’s looking like it will be a short winter, they’re likely to stay out. Otherwise, they’ll head back in for a few more weeks of hibernation.
It won’t be until the end of March that many more adult male grizzlies begin to emerge from their dens for the season. The more dominant males will be the first ones consistently roaming the land. They want to be where the food is however, so they’re likely to be found in places where the snow has melted. In Yellowstone National Park, this could be around the Old Faithful area or Mammoth Hot Springs. In Grand Teton National Park, these grizzly bears can be found wandering around the Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats region of the park.
By the end of April, females with older cubs will have also emerged for the season. They’ll also look to these same areas for food since they’ll require substantial food for their cubs. You’ll be able to find them digging in open areas of the ground looking for roots and ground squirrels. Essentially, most places the snow has melted by that time has the potential to score a grizzly bear visit.
Where Grizzly Bears Roam in Spring
By the end of May, many subadult bears will begin wandering the landscape with the others. By now much more snow will have melted, but will still be relatively low in the mountains, so while there will be more bears roaming the forests and meadows, they’ll have more room to roam. Of course with more bears comes more competition for space, so many bears around this time are exploring the wild for new homes and opportunities. This can yield to some brief encounters on the road as a highway or backroad will inevitably cross its path.
Sows with cubs of the year, ie, newborn grizzly bear cubs, will wait as long as they can to bring their new babies out. This will typically wind up stretching into early June. Waiting this late affords them plenty of wildflowers as well as plenty of other prey options. Grizzly bears with newborn cubs will frequently be seen in Yellowstone in both the Hayden Valley, as well as the Lamar Valley. Of course with Yellowstone being as large as it is, they could be seen along any meadow in the park.
In Grand Teton National Park, bears in June are frequently seen in the northern parts of the park, following the vegetation that grows after snow melts. This can include areas like Colter Bay and Pilgrim Creek, both of which have become quite popular in recent years for bear viewing.
Grizzly Bear Habits in Summer
By July, the summer warmth and settling bellies combined with the increasingly snow-free mountains will drive bears away from human activity. They’ll begin to avoid roads altogether as they rest for the majority of the day and eat in cooler times, avoiding the stresses that human encounters can bring. This will continue into August, but toward the end of August, hyperphagia will begin to set in, and bears all over will begin packing on pounds in anticipation of another hibernation.
Berries such as huckleberries and raspberries, among many others will have started to ripen in late summer. Bears all over will head to many of these areas to forage off of them. In many cases, this can include hiking trails, though most grizzlies will avoid the more popular trails. However Moose-Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park will be covered black bears as the service and hawthorne berries lining the roadsides ripen. On occasion, grizzlies will also scope out the area, but once they do, the park service will shut down the road due to its narrow winding corridors, keeping both bears and people safe from contact with each other. In Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas, many grizzlies will look to higher elevations for moths that breed in the rocky peaks and scree fields.
Grizzly Bears in the Fall Season
By the time October and November roll around, many grizzly bears, particularly in Yellowstone, will head deep into the wilderness to hibernate. However some around Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding forests have learned to follow hunters and clean up after their kills for extra protein and calories. This is most easily observed in the park where the controversial elk reduction hunt takes place each season. During this time, grizzlies can be commonly seen in the hunt zones, including Antelope Flats, Blacktail Butte, and along the Snake River bottom between Moose and the Snake River Overlook. This can last into December, and one season even saw the famous Grizzly Bear #399 take her cubs to den as late as early January as a result, though that is highly unusual.
Understanding these habits and learning the lay of the land can greatly increase your chances of seeing a grizzly. Likewise, striking up friendly conversation with locals and even your hotel staff can help lead to bear viewings. In short though, spring months, particularly May and into June, are your best bet for seeing grizzlies.