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Bears in winter? Yellowstone biologist says to carry spray year-round

Posted at 11:37 AM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 13:37:07-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — If you’ve lived in bear country for any time at all you probably know the importance of carrying bear spray in the backcountry. Now, a Yellowstone National Park bear biologist says you may need to consider carrying it year-round.

Yellowstone hiker Devinne Curbow said she and some friends saw a grizzly in the wild the last weekend of January in the park. “It was pretty astounding,” said Curbow.

In the photo, you can see the bear on a mostly snow-free hillside. Curbow is not revealing the exact location because she says she believes the bear has a den nearby and doesn’t want curious bear watchers to disturb the animal.

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“We get reports of bear activity every month of the year,” said park bear biologist Kerry Gunther.

He told MTN that seeing a bear in January or February can happen. it’s just not very common. If you’re thinking it has been a warm winter and maybe that is waking up the bears, Gunther has some insight.

“You know hibernation is really based more on a seasonal reduction in food availability,” he said.

Thanks to wolves and the elk and bison the packs prey on, more food can be available in winter.

“So most of the time when we see a bear out really early or late, they’re cleaning up wolf kills,” said Gunther.

The bear Curbow and her friends saw was not dining on a recent wolf kill. In fact it wasn’t doing much of anything. She said, “He seemed a little lethargic. He took a couple of paces from where we first saw him. And then just sat down and kind of dreamed off into space and didn’t move for a while.”

Curbow said she and her friends felt safe because they were about 300 yards away and the animal didn’t notice them. She did have bear spray but doesn’t always carry it in the winter. She said that may change, “Most definitely I’ll be carrying it a lot more often.”

Curbow is not the only one making that assessment. Gunther said, “I generally carry my bear spray from March through December but it’s probably a good idea to start carrying it in January and February now.”

There’s something else that’s different about the bears in the park now. Just like the human population in the United States, they’re aging.

Gunther said, “In Yellowstone National Park we have very low rates of human-caused mortality, so our bears live a little older.”

To protect those older bears, the park, for nearly 50 years now, religiously keeps bears away from people food.

Gunther says both the bears and people are benefiting from that change of management strategy. He said, “That’s really resulted in the park being a lot safer for visitors.”

Gunther said that from the 1930s to the 1960s the park averaged 38 bear caused cases of property damage a year and 48 bear attacks a year. Those were mostly connected to people feeding bears from vehicles. Since that changed in the 1970s, the park sees fewer than a dozen incidents of bear caused property damage, and an average of just one bear inflicted human injury per year.

Gunther has three big rules for staying safe from bears in Yellowstone. Number one, hike in groups of three or more.

“Almost none of our injuries ever involve a group of three or more people," Gunther said.

He also advises backcountry hikers to make noise when they approach a blind spot on a trail.

He said, “Just so the bear is aware that you’re coming.”

His other advice is to carry bear spray. “Bear spray has been over 90 percent effective,” said Gunther.

But it’s important to know how to use it. Curbow said she took a bear spray handling course through REI.

Park officials are reaching out to Curbow to confirm her bear sighting. If they do confirm what she saw, it’ll be the first bear that’s been seen outside its den since the first of the year.

Gunther’s advice for seeing a bear in Yellowstone Park is to visit in the spring, from May through mid-June. He said Morning and evening hours are the best times of day with the Lamar and Hayden Valleys being the best locations.