Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yellowstone Bear Fight

In May of 2003 I was lucky enough to witness a bear fight, something few people ever get to see. Here’s how it happened.

Late in May there can still be quite a little snow on the ground and Yellowstone Lake continues to be frozen over. The amount of snow can vary depending on how much falls in the winter and how warm the spring is. However, the net effect is that bears have just woken up from hibernation and their food source is mostly under ice or under the snow. At that time their two food sources are generally young grasses, roots and forbs that are present in the lower elevation valleys (where the roads are) and winter-kill carcasses. They can’t fish, for there is no cutthroat spawning run at that time under the frozen streams. And contrary to popular belief, bears don’t actually spend a lot of time hunting. They will take a sick elk or moose or bison, and in June when the ungulates (cloven hoofed grazers) drop their calves and fawns, the bears will take as many of those as they can. So in May, it is grazing and carcasses. And that tends to concentrate all the bears in a the relatively small areas of the park where there is no snow.

One morning Kim and I were called to a bear jam at Fishing Bridge Junction. Near the junction there is a meadow that a sow grizzly was grazing on, and her two cubs were right beside her following suit. Quite a crowd had gathered. The early season park visitors had found the bears in a perfect place. The bears were close to the road, easy to see in the meadow, and there was plenty of parking with shoulders on both sides of the road. We didn’t have to do too much work. Early season visitors are pretty savvy and knowledgeable for the most part. Had this happened in August, which it often does, there would have been hundreds of people watching. Some would have left their cars with doors open in the middle of the road, others would have parked partially blocking traffic, and it is likely people would have begun to get too close to the bears.In any case, at this bear jam all we had to do was stand by and talk with the visitors about bears.

After about an hour of this we still had a good crowd, but over the radio came an ominous message. There was another grizzly in the vicinity, a boar, and he was slowly working his way towards where we were. Two rangers were already monitoring his activity, so we waited. It began to appear that the big male grizz would eventually arrive where we were. Would the sow and cubs still be there when he arrived? The reason for our concern was that bears don’t play well together. Instead they try to dominate or kill each other. A bear generally defends his or her territory and will drive, younger, weaker bears out. Only during breeding season will bears tolerate each other. A boar will try to kill any sow’s cubs (even the genetic father of the cubs would try to kill them). The apparent reason is that without cubs the sow will breed earlier and the boar can pass along his genes. So we knew that, were their paths to cross, we would see some excitement. Beyond that we didn’t know what would happen.

The rangers on the other grizz informed us that he was still on schedule to be in our area....soon. We spoke with the crowd and told them another grizz was in the neighborhood. We asked all the visitors to stay close to their cars and to get into their cars the moment we asked them without any argument or questions. No one disagreed, which was rare. Fear occasionally trumps brash stupidity. Just then a large tour bus full of old-timers pulled up. We talked with them and warned them to stay close to the bus. Then came another tour bus full of Japanese tourists, and they began to file off the bus as we tried to get them back on. Only a few of the Japanese spoke any English so I just put my hands on their shoulders and turned them around.

At that moment the boar was reported to be in the trees near the meadow. We quickly got everyone in their cars and busses. The Japanese were very disappointed and had no clue why we had given them the bum’s rush back onto the bus. We remained by the side of the road. Our truck was just across the road but a bear can outrun any human with no trouble at all. We were armed with bear-spray on our belts at all times and now we had it ready, velcro strap loosened. (I might mention that we had ultimate faith in bear spray used properly. We had heard many stories of hunters armed with rifles and pistols getting mauled even after shooting a bear in Wyoming, Montana and Alaska. But no one, to our knowledge had ever been mauled when using bear spray.)

The boar walked out into the meadow a ways. Bears have fairly weak eyesight so he smelled them before he saw them. The boar worked his way ever closer with his nose in the air trying to identify what else was in the meadow. The sow somehow communicated with her cubs to get into the woods, or they saw or smelled the boar and instinctively did the right thing. But the sow stood in the meadow waiting for the boar. The boar, up on two legs sniffed and stared, and suddenly went down on all fours and charged. The fight was on. It wasn’t like two prize-fighters standing and punching each other. More like a joust at first and then a dog fight. They passed each other, turned around, and briefly swatted at each other with their two inch long claws. The boar was much bigger, but the sow had much more to loose and he had not much to gain. They took turns clawing at each other and wrestled on the ground for awhile. Then he chased her into the woods and back into the meadow biting and clawing at her rump the whole time. Then she turned on him and swatted and clawed at him. Only about a minute or two had passed and that seemed like an hour. Eventually she chased him off and a muffled cheer went up from the crowd. He must have decided it was not worth the risk of a mortal wound. After a while she wandered into the trees looking for her cubs.

The Japanese folks filed off the motorcoach and thanked us for the show. They bowed and smiled and took our pictures. I got the distinct impression that many of them thought we had organized the bear fight for their benefit. Like the hourly fake gunfights in Jackson. I halfway expected them to give a tip or offer to buy some tickets for the next show. After they expressed their appreciation, they filed back on the bus and went down the road. We stood around and talked to the other visitors for awhile and they wondered how often this happened. We said, "Probably fairly frequently, but none of us has ever seen anything like this before."


Anonymous said...

Great story, what are forbs?

North of Andorra said...

Forbs are leafy green plant. One forb, an important food source for grizz in Yellowstone is clover.

Anonymous said...

That's a great picture of the bears! Is it one of your own pictures...or did someone else take it?

When I visited you in Montana and Nancy and I drove around Yellowstone, my only real disappointment was that we never saw any bears...apparently they had been "misbehaving" that summer and had been driven away from the crazy tourists (me?). I am envious of those who got to see them close-up. They really are remarkable creatures.

Fortunately we did see a few moose...and that was pretty exciting for "Luke the city girl".

Anonymous said...

Great story!
Did you take the pic?

North of Andorra said...

No, I didn't take the picture. I took a fair number of pictures bears while I was in Yellowstone, but I didn't have a digital camera at the time.

Anonymous said...


Your Yellowstone stories are fascinating. I knew that you had a totally "interesting" job there each summer but monitoring bear fights and acting as a drunk are beyond my wildest imagination as a job description! Your reflections on turning 60 were most brought tears to my eyes.
As it is Veterans Day, there was an account in the Omaha World Herald newspaper about the possible naming of Omaha and Utah beaches in WWII.
A soldier working as a carpenter to remodel an apartment building in Central London as a secret headquarters for General Omar Bradley kept a journal. He was from a small town in Iowa just east of Omaha. While outfitting the apartment as a "war room" he and another soldier from somewhere in Utah also a carpenter would often have coffee with general Bradley. General Bradley asked both men where they were from.

Early on in the planning for the D-Day invasion the names of the landing beaches were changed from v-beach and x-beach to Omaha and Utah Beach. The newspaper article went to say that the naming of military "things" was often as minor or arbitrary as someones hometown. Judy