It’s spring and that means the bears are out. But so is everyone else. Pups are born and need to be feed; elk are calving; birds are nesting. It’s a busy time and a great time to go into the Park. There you can also see the bison babies.
But here in my valley right next to Yellowstone, all the same activity is taking place, just a tad more hidden.
I live in a ‘drop off’ place for bears that get into trouble. Bear trouble around here always means trouble that people make for bears like not putting up their food stuff correctly, or not watching their stock so calves or lambs are killed. The Interagency Bear Management Team drops bears off here hoping they will go into the Park. Usually they ‘home’ back to where they came from; but because the Agency has been moving them around for so long, all the drainages around here are already occupied by other bears.
The spring is when bears hang around down low as they follow the seasonal warm-up. They spend time eating grass, or, if they can find it, winter kills, and dig for roots. Hiking at this time of year here in the valley it’s inevitable that you will see grizzly tracks and it’s worth knowing what they look like and how to identify them. For instance, the other day I hiked a drainage and saw what appeared to be a single boar grizzly roaming that area. Another drainage nearby revealed a sow and a two year old–a combination I definitely needed to be watchful of. It seems like every hike either you are ‘following’ a bear or maybe the bear is ‘following’ you. Yet keep in mind that grizzly and black bears are mindful of their own business and are not looking for an encounter with a human. The best advice is to be alert, awake, aware. Carry bear spray and know how to use it quickly. Take your time in the woods–no power walking or headphones. Stop every so often and look around like a deer might.
Bear tracks are easy to identify–they look a lot like human footprints, but bears have their big toe opposite than humans and walk pigeon-toed. Telling the difference between a grizzly and a black bear takes more practice and is not always a certain thing. The Palmisciano method is the recommended technique, working only on front tracks.
Jim Halfpenny says if you have a good, clean track, it is very accurate. But he also notes that ‘anyone who says it is always easy has not done much tracking’.
Since I.D.ing that the print is a bear is easy, what takes practice and is much more pertinent is being able to pick out a track when it’s very faint. With practice, I find that bear prints are so distinguishable that they are probably the easiest to pick out even when hard to see. Here are a few examples.
This one is easy of course. The next one isn’t so hard but you could miss it in the puddle.
The puddle print is a perfect example of how difficult the Palmisciano method can be, especially with just one print. The above print appears to be a black bear, but since I was following this bear for about a mile on a dirt track, I had other prints that were much more distinct. I also know the area is frequented by grizzlies and not blacks. So the above print, although it appears like a black bear print, is actually the front print of a grizzly.
Below prints are pretty easy too. Note the back foot is in front of the smaller front foot. That’s a typical gait for a bear called an amble.
Now look at this one. Koda has stepped on part of it and mostly the metatarsal pad is what is strong. If you look to the top of the photo you can barely make out his left front foot.
One saying trackers have is that it’s not the track you can see, but the next track that you cannot see that teaches you how to track. Keeping that in mind, follow a bear’s footprints and measure or use a stick to see the distance between right and left tracks. Soon you will come upon a track that is not visible, but with the stick as a measure you will know where it is. Study that ‘print’ and soon it jump out at you. After a while of doing this, you’ll find yourself walking along and then ‘see’ a print that seems invisible to others. Seeing that print might just keep you safe as it will heighten your awareness and let you know there’s a grizzly in town.
Grizzlies are ‘on the chopping block’ to be delisted. The IGBT and Sally Jewell are itching to return their management to the states. Once that happens, they will be hunted.
I disagree with delisting for a wide variety of reasons. In the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) which is basically the area around Glacier National Park, there are approximately 750 grizzly bears. In the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYE) there are about the same. But the connecting corridors in-between have few to no bears.
NCDE bears can connect for genetic diversity up into Canada. But how can our bears here, in the GYE, connect? Studies have shown that without any infusion of new genes, these GYE bears will eventually die out.
When grizzlies were listed back in 1975, there were about 120 bears in the GYE. It has taken over 40 years to get to this point where we have over 700 bears. If hunting begins, the ‘easy’ bears, at the edges of the Ecosystem, will be killed. Those are the bears that would connect north with their cousins.
And more importantly, living with bears and seeing how intelligent they are, I cannot see how we can hunt them. Like the tribes who are united against delisting, I have come to feel a powerful spirit connection with grizzlies.
Please read my op-ed below that appeared in the Powell Tribune a few weeks ago. I tell the story of ‘The Woman Who Married a Bear’ and how we are like that woman today.