Black bears roam the entire Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Hole area.They are always a popular attraction for tourists and photographers—if you can find them!
Grizzly numbers have been on the rise for quite over the past decade, displacing some of the Grand Teton Park black bears in the Jackson Lake Dam area, Willow Flats, and Pilgrim Creek areas. I occasionally still see a large black bear in those areas, but most people I speak with say they are less common where Grizzlies have established their range.
Black bears are not always black! They can range in color from blonde, honey, cinnamon, dark brown to solid black. It is not uncommon to hear someone say one of the light cinnamon bears is a grizzly, but in most cases, photographers or rangers will straighten them out with information about the various color phases.
Black bears lack the hump on the back, have a flat muzzle, are generally smaller, and have shorter claws. Grizzlies can vary considerably in color, too, so don’t let the color of the fur be your defining feature!
Black bears and grizzlies hibernate during the coldest months, then reappear in early Spring. They’ll be on the hunt for food. I don’t see that many black bears during the summer months. Hikers report seeing them higher up the mountainsides. At least for me, they are less common near the roads than some of the Grand Teton grizzlies.
As with any animal, the key to finding bears is learning a bit about their preferred food sources. Both black bears and grizzlies are omnivores—they eat both plants and meat—but also flowers, roots, grubs, and moths. Unfortunately, they will eat human food if found or offered. Each year, a few of the black bears are euthanized after learning they can get a quick meal by stealing picnic baskets and food at places like String Lake and Jenny Lake. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a popular slogan used by the Park Service.
Black bear’s primary defense is to climb a tree to safety, so they are more likely to be found in forested areas than in open sage flats. Their short, curved claws allow them to climb trees most other animals cannot climb.
As berry bushes begin to yield their fruit, black bears often appear along the Moose-Wilson Road and near the road to the top of Signal Mountain. Bears seem to remember the locations of Huckleberries, Black Hawthorn berries, Choke Cherries, and Service Berries they found in earlier years. Mother bears, or sows, teach their young about these important sources, necessary to fatten themselves up for the winter months in hibernation. A bounty of White Bark Pine nuts can keep both grizzlies and black bears in the high country in some years, while years with few cones can push them to the lower elevations.
The predominant berry bushes along the Moose-Wilson Road are Black Hawthorns. Often, black bears climb larger trees like this Aspen to get to the crop of ripening berries.
Hawthorn leaves are green initially. By late fall, many Hawthorn leaves turn bright red before falling to the ground.
If you were to walk around the berry zones, you’ll likely notice that most berries below about shoulder height are stripped clean early in the season. I figure deer and elk graze on them to that height, while Robins and Cedar Waxwings pick off berries on the upper portions. Sows are well equipped to stand on branches to get their share of the berries, but they also stand on the ground and pull down branches. Occasionally, you’ll hear a branch snap.
Cubs are high wire acrobats. They can display amazing agility as they walk across thin branches pressed down by their weight.
Typically, the sow is close by as the kiddos climb to the tops of the trees and bushes in search of food.
Unless someone else has already spotted a bear, or you happen upon a “bear jam”, it would be easy to miss a bear tucked into the bushes.
One of the big challenges in photographing a black bear in the Black Hawthorn bushes is getting a relatively clean shot of their face. It seems there are always one or two twigs, leaves, or branches in the way.
Black bears occasionally move from the trees and bushes to other areas in search of a new bounty of berries. High grasses make some of those shots difficult, but occasionally one will stand up for a few seconds.
Black bears seem to either be eating or sleeping. Occasionally, they pick a visible tree to lounge in safety.
Occasionally, you might hear the term “hyperphagia” in regards to bears. This is a period in late fall when bears gorge themselves on a food source to build up food reserves for hibernation. Luckily this period coincides with the ripening berry crop!
Early season snowfall usually melts quickly along the valley floor. The bears continue feeding through the subtle changes in the season. This photo shows how well they can distribute their weight on some of the smallest of branches.
In 2017, there have been two cinnamon colored sows, each with two cinnamon colored cubs along the Moose-Wilson Road. There have also been several individual cinnamon or brown bears, but very few solid black bears this year. The black bear above was photographed near the top of Signal Mountain in mid-August.
This pair was photographed near Jackson Lake, essentially at the base of Signal Mountain. There are black bears in the Park! A sow can give birth to cinnamon or brown colored cubs, and even a black and a brown cub in the same litter.
Realities on the Moose-Wilson Road
Earlier, I mentioned one of the big challenges of photographing a back bear is finding opportunities without twigs or branches across their face. Actually, the biggest challenge is being able to take a photo of any bear along the Moose-Wilson Road. I could rant on this topic enough to fill a book and any local photographer could do the same. The two issues that rise to the top are the The 100 Yard Rule(s) and the tight quarters of the Moose-Wilson Road and Signal Mountain Road. Grizzly watchers face similar conditions in some of the northern zones of the park. The 100 Yard Rule(s) page was written in 2014 just after the park’s Compendium had been updated.
The compendium now states, “The following activities are prohibited:
a) Willfully approaching, remaining, viewing, or engaging in any activity within 100 yards of bears or wolves, or within 25 yards of any other wildlife including nesting birds; or within any distance that disturbs, displaces or otherwise interferes with the free unimpeded movement of wildlife, or creates or contributes to a potentially hazardous condition or situation.
The wording “Willfully approaching, remaining, viewing” can, and was interpreted to include being inside your vehicle. Park officials, including the volunteer Wildlife Management Team (often called the Bear Brigade), say they now use the rules “as a tool” to control the crowds as needed. They can tell everyone they are too close and send every person to their vehicles—or they can judge the situation and control the scene as they see fit.
A bear “experience” in GTNP can be different from day to day—even in the exact same spot. On some days, cones line the road for half a mile and people are yelled at for walking on the road. Other days, the cones are gone and the Rangers or Brigade allows people to view and photograph the bears at reasonable distances. I’ve experienced days when tourists block the road, leave their cars unattended with the doors wide open, and approach the bears at frame filling iPhone distances. Other days tourists are well behaved and considerate—even without an official in the area.
I don’t recall an incident of a black bear mauling a tourist in Grand Teton National Park. When I’ve seen them along the Moose-Wilson Road, they appear to have one mission: feeding on the berries.
When grizzlies are in the area, the Park Service closes the road altogether. Crazy tourists, close quarters, and an extremely fast and powerful bear could be a disaster in the making.
In short, if you get a great experience, count your blessings and shoot thousands of photos that day. Maybe a few of them will lack the twig or branch across their face!
My three “P” words are “Practice, Patience, and Persistence”. It applies to about any kind of photography, but especially so for black bears and grizzlies. Every photographer can get lucky once in a while and stumble upon a wonderful opportunity. They can snap a terrific photo, even with few skills. I’ve gone to a specific spot over and over waiting to get the spectacular morning clouds and beautiful light, only to have a passerby walk up to take the same shot I worked so hard to get. I paid the price, and they got lucky! Occasionally, I am the lucky one, but of course I could simply say I recognized a great opportunity and took advantage of it!
My first recommendation for photographing bears would be to buy a telephoto lens. Leave the iPhone or iPad for family shots and landscapes. Both Tamron and Sigma make 150-600mm lenses for under $1400. Nikon makes a 200-500mm lens in the same price range.
I like taking photos using a tripod, but they are not 100% necessary on a day with good light. Take it to a local youth soccer field and practice with it on shots you can afford to lose. Luckily, digital photos are cheap!
In most cases, black bears feeding in the top or middle of a tree don’t move too quickly. I typically set my camera to Single Point, Single Servo focusing mode, then attempt to focus on the bear’s eyes. You’ll find plenty of people that do it differently, but I like to control the shot. Selecting 9, 21, or Group may work, but I find the camera will often focus on a branch or leaf in front of their face. (Your camera will likely have different numbers than my Nikon bodies). I tend to shoot a lot of photos, hoping to get one out of the group with a little catch light in their eyes. They’ll often pull a branch back to get to the berries, allowing for a clean shot. I’d love to photograph black bears splashing through the water, or climbing across a downed log, but at this time of the year, they are generally only feeding.
If I am anticipating a burst of action, I usually switch the camera back to Continuous Focus with 9 points. I was still in Single Point, Single Servo mode when this sow appeared through the cattails. It worked perfectly, but she bolted across the road. I missed a couple of shots by being in the wrong mode for the situation.
Of my three “P”s, practice is the easiest. I can practice while waiting around in a parking lot. Persistence is relatively easy, too. Just keep going back to a good zone. Patience is the most difficult if nothing appears to be happening. Black bears on the Moose-Wilson Road offer a bit of relief for an impatient photographer. Grand Teton National Park covers an area of roughly 310,000 acres. If black bears were present earlier in the day, the odds are fairly high they will return to the same area at other times of the day. After feeding for an hour or two, they sleep for another hour or two before feeding again. Of the 310,000 acres, you may have one feeding in the couple of acres directly in front of you! During hyperphagia, they’ll likely be back. Grizzlies roam the park in search of food, making finding them much less predictable.
Persistence is also important. If you don’t see them one day, go back! You first set of photos might look great at the time, but can be eclipsed by better ones on later experiences. You’ll have good days, great days, and days leaving you frustrated or even mad. No one says it’s easy! You just have to grab a bat, go to the plate and take your cuts. MJ
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