It’s Time: Grizzly Bears Emerging from Hibernation in Yellowstone National Park

by Jon D. B.
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Yellowstone National Park giants are returning to the landscape as hibernation ends, and the park’s first grizzly bear sighting of 2022 should be here any minute.

Few animals are more ravenous, or hold our imagination more fiercely, than a spring grizzly bear. And now, as March rolls into spring – their reemergence is upon us.

In fact, 2019’s first documented sighting of an emerging grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park was three years ago today: March 8, 2019 in Canyon Village. In 2020, the park would note their first grizzly sighting the day before: March 7, in the Midway Geyser Basin.

They’re Out! Yellowstone’s First Grizzly Sighting of 2022

And this year, March 7 was the day, too. “On Monday, March 7, a pilot supporting Yellowstone National Park wildlife research observed the first grizzly bear of 2022,” the park announced Monday as part of a news release. “The adult bear was seen walking in a meadow in the west-central part of the park.”

Last year’s first sighting came almost a week later, however. March 13 would see the first grizzly bear sighting of 2021. Yellowstone notes that this bear was spotted by a wildlife study pilot in remarkable circumstances: feeling out a pack ofg wolves as they fed on the remains of a large animal.

All of the above brings us to 2022, which could see the return of Yellowstone National Park grizzly bears any moment. And when they lumber out from their dens – of which they’ve spend a solid 4-6 months sleeping in without food or water – they define the term ravenous.

Yellowstone National Park Grizzly Bears: Who’s Emerging?

According to the park, Yellowstone grizzlies may lose 15-30% of their body weight during hibernation. This all comes in the form of fat reserves, however, so the animals aren’t skeletal or malnourished. Quite the opposite, in fact: grizzlies emerge with an increase in lean body mass and ready to take on another year.

But it’s not just any ol’ grizzly emerging from their dens each March. It’s the males, or boars, that typically exit hibernation this time of year. Some boars emerge as early as February, but the majority make appearances in March’s lead-up to spring (which begins March 20).

A Grizzly bear mother and her cub walk near Pelican Creek October 8, 2012 in the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Photo credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images)

A few females, or sows, will reemerge during this time, too. But any mother grizzlies with cubs won’t see the light of day until April or even May. There’s several reasons why, but a distinct evolutionary advantage comes into play with this time difference, too. If grizzly mothers and cubs were emerging at the same time as ravenous males, the species wouldn’t survive. Male grizzlies often cannibalize cubs they come across, either consuming them outright or killing them in displays of dominance. This ensures there’s less male competition for themselves in the future.

By emerging much later, mothers and their cubs stand a higher chance of survival. Sows with cubs will also remain within 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) of their dens until late May, furthering their chances.

Yellowstone Visitors Must Stay ‘Bear Aware’ During Spring Emergence

“Spring visitors hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing in the park can reduce the chances of encountering bears by avoiding low elevation winter ranges, thermal areas, and south-facing slopes where bears seek out ungulate carcasses and spring vegetation shortly after emerging from winter dens,” says Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone National Park bear management biologist, in the park’s 2022 news release.

“Now that bears are emerging from winter dens, visitors should be excited for the chance to view and photograph them. But they should also treat bears with respect and caution,” added Gunther during a previous year’s first sighting.

Respect and caution is putting it lightly. Bluntly, “Hikers, skiers, and snowshoers should travel in groups of three or more. Carry bear spray, and make noise,” Gunther continued. Yellowstone grizzlies are opportunistic feeders, and will go after anything that seems an easy meal this time of year. But thankfully for us human visitors, their long hibernation leaves them in a low energy state. So instead of seeking out tourists, they’re much more likely to go after vegetation or discarded carcasses.

“When bears first emerge from hibernation, they look for carcasses at lower elevations and spring vegetation in thermal meadows and south-facing slopes for nourishment,” Gunther adds, citing the grizzly’s omnivorous nature.

Regardless, Yellowstone National Park urges any visitors to use extreme caution this time of year. So if you’re planning a visit, be sure to pack your bear spray and know how to use it. Always travel in a group, and never (ever) approach any bears in the park.

For more information on how to safely traverse Yellowstone while grizzly bears are emerging, check out the national park’s full 2022 press release here.

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