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ReWilding the Beartooths

It’s happening.  Grizzlies are re-inhabiting the Beartooth Mountains.

grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Grizzly warning sign in the lower elevations. Now bears are returning to the high elevation Beartooths

In the last few years, Grizzly activity has increased along the flanks of the Beartooth Front, the southeastern base that nestles the community of Red Lodge and the long north and eastern drainages where berries and other fall foods are abundant. Red Lodge is now getting its share of grizzly bears. But still there were few reports of bear activity in the high alpine forests.

Certainly bears have used the lower drainages on the west side of the Beartooths like Crazy Creek,  Soda Butte, or Lily Lake.  These are low elevations that provided a corridor through Cooke City into and out of the Park.

Years ago I heard of a sow who lost her young cub in the spring to an automobile.  She bawled for a week around the Clay Butte/Beartooth Lake area, looking for her cub.  Yet although I’ve backpacked frequently, and spend a lot of time in the summers day-hiking the western Wyoming side every year, I’ve never seen any bear sign–tracks or scat.

The Beartooths still offer bears great habitat.  The excessive moisture brings a lot of plant food opportunities in the way of grasses, forbs and roots.  And they still have healthy stands of White Bark pines.  White Bark pines in the GYE are 90% dead.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

The exception to that rule are the Wind River Mountains and the Beartooths.

White Bark pines in the Winds.  Healthy stands

White Bark pines in the Winds. Healthy stands

And those Marmots have traditionally been a favorite protein for bears.

Marmot

Marmot

So when I began my hike today from Hauser Lake down to Stockade Lake, I figured that there were no bears around these parts–especially so high.

Losekamp Lake (around 9600′) sits at the base of Tibbs Butte (10,676′).  Grizzly bear watchers will tell you that these bears mysteriously disappear around the 4th of July.  For years no one knew where they went, until a pilot flying over high talus slopes in the mid-80s saw bears congregating there.  These bears were taking advantage of Army Cutworm moths who feed on alpine plants and summer here.  My understanding is that the Beartooths, although high and abundant in these talus slopes, do not have moth sites, although the Wind Rivers does.

Losekamp and Stockade lakes are rarely visited, being on the less popular southern side of the highway.  I was alone on my walk.  Koda and I made our way down to Stockade Lake, where I tooled around for a bit looking for an elusive Sheep Eater trap I was told was once there.

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake, Beartooths, WY

With little wind and mosquitos too thick for a lunch break, we headed back towards Losekamp lake.  Koda a bit ahead, went off the trail about 10′ to smell something behind a boulder.  All of a sudden he growled–a sure sign of an animal he got scared of–and I looked up to see a sleepy bear rise from the boulder.  I quickly called Koda back, and grabbed my bear spray.  We stopped for a moment to access.  The bear, surprised and probably a bit scared himself, immediately began eating, displacing his fear to food.  He seemed sleepy and not about to run away, nor be aggressive.  He pondered us.

Young bear

Young bear

Grizzly bear

A young grizzly, probably just kicked out this year, I did wonder if his mama was around.  Lucky for us she was no where to be seen.  I gave the bear a big berth, going off and around the trail, while talking to him gently, apologizing for waking him up.

Most grizzly encounters end this way, with the bear usually running off. A few weeks ago around my area, Koda alerted me to a grizzly that was also sleeping by the trail, awakened by our presence.  Koda kept by my side, and the griz, about 200′ away, pondered us for a moment, then ran off.  Dogs will alert you and keep you safe if they are well-mannered and under good voice control.  A dog that runs all over the hills and is not very responsive poses a grave danger for a person, as the dog might bring the bear back to you in his fear, with the grizzly following.   The best book to read for safety with grizzlies is Hiking with Grizzlies by Tim Rubbert, or watch online The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies with Charlie Russell and observe Charlie’s body posture when dealing with bears and using bear spray.  Stay away from those books about Grizzly attacks.  It’s like reading a book about fatal car accidents instead of actually learning how to drive safely.

Robin egg, hatched

Robin egg, hatched

Upon returning to the car at the trailhead, I stopped at the Top of the World Store to deliver some of my Wild Excellence books.  I told Kristi Milam, the owner, about my bear experience and she told me there’s been a lot more sightings this year than ever before.

One other note on the Beartooths:  it’s becoming an excellent place to possibly see, or hear, wolves.  I’ve been seeing tracks of the Beartooth pack around this same area for weeks, as well as Clay Butte and lower elevations like Crazy Creek drainage.  Wolves were spotted up at Top Lake just weeks ago in the meadows. Elephant's head

With Grizzly Bears and wolves returning to the Beartooths, they are finally re-wilding.  Carry bear spray and be safe.

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6 Responses

  1. Wish we could have hiked with you!

    Like

  2. Finally had an opportunity to drive around your area today. The Sunlight area always puts a big ol kool aid grin back on my face. No time to hike today but I’ll be back soon to enjoy that amazing place.

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  3. […] a lunch and bear spray (last year I encountered a young grizzly near here at the lake) and enjoy the stockade while you contemplate what happened here 150 years […]

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  4. What a close encounter! Must have been a great adrenaline rush. That is, however, a cinnamon colored black bear; not a grizzly.

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    • I still think it was the young griz that was kicked out along with her sister. I did see a clear hump when he turned sideways. Rounded short ears and small hump. But it can be hard to tell with a young bear.

      Like

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