Grizzly Bears in Glacier National Park

~ a slow hiker's guide™


Grizzly Bears

The highest density of grizzly bears per square mile in the lower 48 states occurs in Glacier National Park.

If you are not in the Many Glacier Valley you can visit and hike in the park for years and never see a grizzly bear. Last year, 2012, while hiking, camping and visiting Many Glacier I saw more grizzly bears in one season May to October then in all the previous years combined. They are not pets!

Weather remains a major factor in the lives of all wildlife. During 2013 in the Many Glacier area, at the valley level, the service berry crop was poor. What happened, the bears came and ate the few berries that were present and then almost all of the grizzly bears went up to higher elevations for other sources of food. Mid September of 2013 there were five black bears that were regularly visible on the hillside above the entry road. At the same time St Mary Campground which had a bumper crop of service berries went from hard sided campers only to being closed due to the number of bears coming into the campground to eat the berries.

My first up close and personal encounter with a grizzly bear was while hiking on the Danny On Trail on Big Mountain a few miles outside and above Whitefish, Montana. It was also one of the few times that I hiked without my camera. That was over ten years ago. There have been grizzly bears in my yard, I didn't see the bear Fish and Wildlife banged on my door and warned me not to come outside. After that my nephew who was staying with me at that time carried bear spray to the school bus stop. On an unrelated animal, the mountain lion which I have never seen in Glacier Park but a few years ago when I was just starting on a camping trip to Many Glacier about 200 yards down the road to Whitefish I was forced to stop my car while five mountain lions crossed the road in front of me. Since then the deer population in my general area is greatly reduced.

In Northwest Montana wildlife is not confined to Glacier National Park.

Bear Spray

Living with Grizzly Fact Sheet No. 8 ~ US Fish and Wildlife

"At first glance, this question may seem like a no-brainer. After all, aren’t guns made to kill, while pepper spray (so-called “bear spray,” when it comes in big cans) does not? Unlike an attack by a human assailant, who may be able to use your own weapon against you, that safety/survival argument for using pepper spray doesn’t apply to a human-bear encounter... or does it? When it comes to self defense against grizzly bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt. Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear. While firearms can kill a bear, can a bullet kill quickly enough -- and can the shooter be accurate enough -- to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack? The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun. Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality -- based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research -- a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used. Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger. Detecting signs of a bear and avoiding interaction, or understanding defensive bear behaviors, like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping injury. The Service supports the pepper spray policy of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which states that bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance safety techniques, and that bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear. Like seatbelts, bear spray saves lives. But just as seatbelts don’t make driving off a bridge safe, bear spray is not a shield against deliberately seeking out or attracting a grizzly bear. No deterrent is 100% effective, but compared to all others, including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proven to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved."

I never hike or camp without having a can of bear spray quickly available

In over twenty years of hiking in grizzly bear country I have never needed to spray a bear.

I have on multiple occasions taken the safety off of the bear spray can. When the safety is off I am not moving or hiking. The ever popular bear bells are a SCAM, they do not work and only serve to annoy fellow hikers. The NPS has a a free wildlife safety class daily, during the summer, at the St Mary Visitor Center at 2 pm.

tagged grizzly bear many glacier 2013 ©Shawn Coggins

A sub-adult grizzly bear with prominent shoulder hump

Grizzly Data

Most adult female grizzlies weigh 130–200 kg (290–440 lb),
while adult males weigh on average 180–360 kg (400–790 lb).

"The average total length in this subspecies is 198 cm (6.50 ft), with an average shoulder height of 102 cm (3.35 ft) and hindfoot length of 28 cm (11 in). Newborn bears may weigh less than 500 grams (1.1 lb). In the Yukon River area, mature female grizzlies can weigh as little as 100 kg (220 lb). On the other hand, an occasional huge male grizzly has been recorded which greatly exceeds ordinary size, with weights reported up to 680 kg (1,500 lb). Although variable from blond to nearly black, grizzly bear fur is typically brown in color with white tips.

A pronounced hump appears on their shoulders; the hump is a good way to distinguish a black bear from a grizzly bear, as black bears do not have this hump."
from Wikipedia ~

Note: This includes data from Alaskan Brown Bears which tend to be larger thanks to their protein rich diet of salmon.

Grizzly hump

You can clearly see the hump that distinguishes a grizzly bear from a black bear in the photo above taken September of 2012. The grizzly bear is crossing the large meadow between the entry road to Many Glacier and Lake Sherbourne. For the first time in almost ten years I haven's seen any grizzly bears in or around Glacier Park. That includes multiple trips to Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and St Mary starting in mid May of 2013.

There are a lot of cinnamon colored black bears in Glacier Park. Other characteristics to distinguish between a black bear and a grizzly bear is the profile of the head. A black bear has a 'Roman Nose' profile, while a grizzly bears nose takes a dip below the eyes. Grizzly bear ears are also more rounded and smaller than those of black bears. In a profile view a black bears rump is higher than its shoulders, while a grizzly bears shoulders are higher than its rump.

Grizzly Bear Paw cast from live adult bear

Glacier National Park is bear country. The cast of an adult grizzly bear paw was taken from a live bear that was being relocated into the wilderness. That bear is not the same as shown above. The cast was made several years ago from a Grizzly Bear that was NOT in Glacier Park. Food of any type attracts bears. All of Glacier Parks front country campgrounds have steel boxes for storing food. The back country campgrounds have a horizontal pole in the food preparation area from which all food items are to be hung and stored when not actively preparing food. A fed bear is a dead bear.

Grizzly Bear!

grizzly bear paw plaster cast

Photo of plaster cast made from a live adult Grizzly Bear paw

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