Yosemite National Park Wildlife: From Black Bears to Mountain Lions, Which Animals You’ll See and ‘How-To’ Wildlife Safety

by Jon D. B.
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Yosemite National Park is teeming with remarkable California wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on Earth. Learn which species you’ll spot, how to identify them, and crucial wildlife safety from the park and be prepared for your Yosemite adventure.

Founded in 1890, Yosemite National Park is the crown jewel of California and sits atop the bucket lists of many an Outsider. Careening valleys, canyons, rivers and waterfalls carve through magnificent mountains and cliffs; each housing some of the most fantastic wildlife in North America.

Whether you’re looking to spot the brownest black bears around, experience the return of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, or take part in California’s best spring birding, Yosemite’s wildlife is sure to be a highlight of your visit.

Yosemite National Park Wildlife You’re Likely To See:

  • Approximately 300 to 500 black bears roam Yosemite
  • Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are back after a 100 year absence
  • Mule deer are abundant throughout the park
  • 262 species of birds have been documented in Yosemite, including 165 resident and migratory species
  • Mountain lions also call Yosemite home, so be sure to prepare with crucial safety information below
  • Yosemite has an abundance of reptiles, including the harmless kingsnake and venomous Northern Pacific rattlesnake
  • Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive Pacific fisher, one of North America’s most unique mammals

Continue on to learn more about each species below.

The Non-Black Black Bears of Yosemite National Park

Approximately 300 to 500 black bears roam Yosemite, and remarkably few are actually black in color (see below). So remember, if you spot a bear in Yosemite National Park – or anywhere in California – it’s a North American black bear. Grizzly bears have been extinct in California for over 100 years, despite their continuing presence on the state flag.

A black bear photographed in in Yosemite National Park, California, on 29-31 May 2015, showing how easy it is to misidentify a western black bear as a grizzly bear. (Photo by Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

While it seems an easy thing to do, telling the difference between grizzly bears and black bears can be a tricky affair – even for those who study the species for a lifetime. To nail down identifying these two favorite species for yourself, see our How To Tell The Difference Between a Black Bear and a Brown Bear next.

  • Where To See Black Bears in Yosemite: Across the park during non-hibernation (March-November)

Out West, North American black bears range in color from deep to bright brown, reddish brown, and even blonde, much like us humans. Some will still sport black coats, though this is rare in Yosemite. Curious, resourceful, and remarkably adaptable, black bears continue to traverse the majority of the national park and are a staple sight for visitors.

When dealing with black bears in any sense, however, park safety information is crucial:

  • Visitors who encounter a bear should keep their distance for safety and respect for themselves and the animal
  • If visitors see a black bear in undeveloped areas, they should remain at least 50 yards from it
  • If they encounter a bear in developed areas, they should stand their ground and scare the bear away by raising their arms and making very loud noises
  • Black bears may show dominance by bluff charging, especially when guarding food or cubs

No fatalities have taken place in Yosemite National Park and attacks are rare, but it is always best to be prepared and BearWise, as all black bears are large, potentially dangerous predators.

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep are Back in Yosemite National Park

Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep tagged for monitoring and conservation. (Photo by Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

‘Father of National Parks’ John Muir, who was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park (1890) and the protection of its wildlife, called the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep the “bravest of all Sierra Mountaineers.” But the species would disappear from this beloved homeland within the first 25 years of the park’s existence due to unregulated hunting, alongside diseases carried by domestic sheep.

But now, after an absence of more than a century, the Sierra Nevada bighorn is back.

  • Where To See Bighorn Sheep in Yosemite:
    • Cathedral Range
    • Yosemite’s high country, along the crest of the Sierra
    • Within the heart of Yosemite’s thick wilderness

The National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would restore three Sierra Nevada bighorn herds to their historic range within Yosemite National Park, where visitors can experience their splendor today.

Yosemite National Park is ‘Prime Mountain Lion Country’

Whether you call them cougars, pumas, panthers, or mountain lions, these apex predators call all of Yosemite’s mountains and valleys home. The mountain lion is not a common site, but visitors should always be aware that they are within this big cat’s territory.

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Mountain Lion, also known as the cougar, puma, or North American panther. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

North America’s lions are solitary creatures, and elude visitors. Instead, sightings in the park often occur when a mountain is on on the prowl. The park typically notes encounters when a lion is chasing, killing or eating a raccoon or coyote or similar prey within developed areas.

If you see a mountain lion, take these additional precautions:

  • Do not run
  • Shout in a low voice and wave your arms or hold open your coat to look large and threatening
  • Maintain eye contact and do not crouch down
  • Throw sticks or rocks
  • If an attack occurs, fight back

Including Yosemite NP, Half of California is believed to be prime mountain lion country, with a potential population of 5,000 statewide.

Mule Deer Cause More Injuries Than Any Other Animal in Yosemite National Park

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(Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Mule deer are especially common in Yosemite Valley and are a common sight across the park for visitors as they browse on leaves and tender twigs from trees, grass, and herbs.

Although they may seem aloof, mule deer should be treated with the same amount of caution as any other large mammal. In fact, according to the park, more injuries are inflicted by deer, with one documented death, than those caused by black bear or any other Yosemite National Park wildlife.

Keep in mind, too, that human food is not healthy for deer or any wild animals. It is illegal to feed any animal in the park.

Keep an Eye Out for Elusive Fishers!

“What’s that? Is it a fox? A weasel? A beaver? A baby bear? No…it’s a fisher!” One of Yosemite National Park’s most unique and fascinating residents, the Pacific fisher is a large member of the weasel family. They’re elusive, however, so spotting one in the old growth forests they inhabit makes for a trip of a lifetime!

“Many describe these mammals as “fluffy land otters,” but contrary to its name, fishers (Pekania pennanti) don’t heavily eat fish. Instead, they are opportunistic predators that hunt a variety of prey. As part of the weasel family, fishers are related to badgers, minks, and otters. Similar in size to a large house cat, they can climb trees up and down headfirst, thanks to hind feet that can rotate almost 180 degrees. Here in Yosemite, fishers thrive in old growth mature forests with large trees, decaying logs, and dense canopy cover. They are usually found resting in snags (standing dead trees) or cavities of trees, which take centuries to form.”

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Offers Some of California’s Best Birding

Father of National Parks’ John Muir’s favorite bird, the American dipper (illustrated by the great John James Audubon below), is among the highlights of birding in Yosemite NP. Astoundingly, 262 total species of birds have been documented in Yosemite. This includes 165 resident and migratory species.

American Dipper. 1. Male. 2. Female., Audubon, John James, 1785-1851 (Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Spring in Yosemite is especially exciting. During, migrant flocks of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and bright tanagers with all grace the landscape with beautiful colors and songs:

As for birds of prey, a distinct population of great grey owls calls the Sierra Nevada valley home. California spotted owls also reside in the park, as does the recovering Yosemite population of Peregrine falcons:

Yosemite National Park also contains a high diversity of reptiles. 22 species, including one turtle, seven lizards, one skink, and 13 snakes, call the park home. The two most worth noting, however, are the kingsnake and Northern Pacific rattlesnake for two reasons.

Identifying Snakes in Yosemite National Park

The most striking snake in Yosemite is the brightly-colored Sierra mountain kingsnake. These threatening looking constrictors are actually harmless to humans, however. They bare a remarkable resemblance to the deadly coral snake, but take note: Coral snakes do not exist within Yosemite National Park’s wildlife. If you see a red, black, and yellow snake, it’s a kingsnake and it poses no threat to you. Note the difference in the images below:

Whenever in the habitat of either snake, remember the popular saying: “Red-on-black is a friend of Jack’s. Red-on-yellow will kill a fellow.”

The only venomous snake found in Yosemite is the Northern Pacific rattlesnake. The likelihood of encountering one is low, but it is always best to be prepared:

  • Pay attention when hiking or climbing in dry, rocky places
  • Watch where you step, especially when stepping over logs
  • Avoid putting your hands in holes or on ledges where snakes may be sunning themselves
  • If you do see or hear one, simply detour around it or let the snake move away
  • Rattlesnakes are an important part of Yosemite’s ecosystem, and should not be harmed
Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. (Photo: MICHAEL MACOR/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

For more information on Yosemite National Park wildlife, visit their site’s nature guide here.

And as always, stick with your fellow Outsiders for the latest on Yosemite National Park.

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