This past week, I finally visited Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming for the first time. WOW! It blew my mind. What an interesting place. In the past few years, there are many things that we’ve learned from Yellowstone when it comes to grizzly bear management and recovery. In that learning process, I’ve made some assumptions about the similarities between Yellowstone and Banff, but when I was there I saw many more differences that I originally anticipated.
Yellowstone’s Grizzlies (and some of what we’ve learned)
There is a long history of grizzly management changes coming from Yellowstone. At one time, there were bleachers were set up next the dump so people could watch bears feeding on garbage. Eventually, Yellowstone was one of the first places to put in proper garbage management to reduce attractants for bears in areas of human use. Today, Yellowstone is trying new things with facilitating viewing of grizzly bears off the side of the road, allowing people to have a safe and amazing bear viewing experience.
Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population was also one of the places where grizzly bear recovery in the US began, and it has been largely successful. The Yellowstone grizzly bear population has grown and it’s range continues to expand. This grizzly bear population has been isolated from other bear populations for many decades, and the need to connect the Yellowstone bears to other bear populations further north was part of the reason for the creation of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y aims to connect wide ranging mammal population from Yellowstone to the Yukon through partnerships with all kinds of people – check out their website for more about them: http://www.y2y.net).
The story of Yellowstone’s bears is also told in a great book called Do (Not) Feed the Bears by Alice Wondrak Biel, released in 2006. This is a great story of how we went from feeding bears to admiring them from afar and all the management that had to change along the way. Layer on top of that all of the active recovery efforts and there’s been a lot going on in Yellowstone for a very long time. Other parks and protected areas use many of the lessons learned in Yellowstone to shape their own management approaches.
The Differences between Yellowstone and Banff
The biggest difference is the landscape features. Yellowstone is on a plateau, it’s wide and open and not as forested. Banff is characterized by deep, narrow, treed valleys. This difference in topography changes most everything. Yellowstone has a more available habitat than Banff so so also has a slightly higher density of grizzly bears simply because there is more food to go around. There are over 600 grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (about 56,600km2); Banff has about 60 grizzly bears and is about 6,697km2.
The main difference, from a people perspective, is that you can see the grizzlies in Yellowstone much easier because the habitat is so open. While driving through Yellowstone, we saw a female grizzly with three 2-year old cubs off the side of the road. They were easily a kilometer away from the road and there were many people at the pull-out watching them – everyone had spotting scopes, binoculars or both. The grizzly family group was going about their business without the need to be concerned about people and visitors were treated to a very special opportunity to watch these bears digging up for roots as if they weren’t even there. In Banff, a grizzly family group could easily be engaged in the same behaviour close to the road, but you’d never see them because the valleys are treed and steep.
A couple more kilometers down the road, we watched a male grizzly draped over an adult bison carcass. He was about 100m from the road. It was amazing! I had never seen a bear on a carcass before and to have the chance to see one so close to the road was incredibly special. Again, there were many people gathered with binoculars and spotting scopes watching him from a very safe distance away and he didn’t even seem to care.
Without trees and a flatter landscape, Yellowstone provides a completely different viewing opportunity than Banff. In Banff, people are more likely to see bears on the side of the road. This closeness makes from a completely different encounter. Bears are more likely to feel pressure by so many people being so close to them, this could make the bear feel more uncomfortable and could even force the bear away from the road side into the forest. Every time a bear is displaced from eating, it spends energy to get somewhere else to eat. In a habitat where food is less abundant, this can be a big deal of it happens often enough. Or the bear could care less about people and cars and continue eating dandelions in the ditch. The important thing to remember is that you never know and so being sure to provide bears with space when you see them in Banff reduces the chances of having a negative impact on them. The topography means that if you see a bear, you’re already pretty close to it so think about what that means for the bear before you stop your car and get out to take pictures.
Back to fall in the Canadian Rockies
Back at home in Canmore, it’s fall and the larches have begun turning and the fall hikers are getting out for a glimpse of the fine colours. This is a very important time for grizzly bears too, they are in pre-denning, eat as much as possible mode (hyperphagia). I’ll break it down as simple as possible – a fat bear makes babies, a skinny bear doesn’t. So please, get out and enjoy the fall colours and keep your eyes open for bears, but remember to give them their space if you should cross paths. Bears right now need to eat as much as they can. Try and turn your thinking around to putting the bear first – would it change how you behave in the Park and surrounding wilderness?
Have fun out there!