American White PelicansPurple PetuniasSandhill CraneHorse's EyeAmerican BisonSparring American ElksAurora Borealis

Fall Color
Grizzly Bears
by Bob Dean

Vicious monster, endangered animal, fascinating creature; each of these terms has been used when the topic of grizzly bears arises. There are bodies of evidence that can be cited to defend each one. To truly understand the great bears would require a lifetime of study, but you can be sure that any knowledge will help you in your quest to photograph these animals.

Grizzlies are one of three subspecies of brown bears found in the Northern Hemisphere. The other two are the Eurasian brown bear and the Alaskan brown bear, also somewhat mistakenly called the Kodiak bear. To the photographer working in North America, the grizzly and the Alaskan brown bear are of most interest and we will cover both under the umbrella of "grizzly".

Grizzlies historically ranged over all of the western and central parts of North America, from Alaska to northern Mexico and as far east as the Dakotas and Missouri River drainage. In modern times the pressure of human population expansion has reduced their range to Alaska, Western Canada, and a few pockets in the lower forty-eight states.

The physical description of a grizzly is characterized by form and shape. The bear has a large, stout body with a small head sporting nondescript ears. The legs are fairly equal in length front to back and tapered from the body down to the paws. The most distinguishing features of the grizzly include a long thick coat that can range from cream or cinnamon to black and can have hairs with white tips (hence the grizzled look which gives the bear its common name). Other distinguishing features are the pronounced shoulder hump (comprised of muscle mass), long front claws, and a narrow head with a long snout and jaw.

Grizzly bears vary widely in size with individual males being reported to weigh between 400 to well over 1000 pounds. Females are typically smaller but are still considered very large when compared to humans. The size of the bears is related to diet and the availability of food on a regular basis in particular. The largest of the bears are typically on the west coast where annual fish runs, along with ample plant food, provide a nutritious and reliable diet. The bears in the interior, where less food is typically available, are somewhat smaller.


The behavior of grizzlies, as with all bears, is typical of any strong intelligent animal; that is, very unpredictable and based on the situation, the bear's previous experience, and on the personality of the individual bear. Bear behavior is basically driven by the need to insure reproductive success. This can take the form of sows defending their cubs, any bear defending its food supply, males challenging each other for territory, etc.

The cycle of a bear's life centers on winter denning, a time when the life of the bear begins or is renewed. The spring, summer and fall are spent eating large quantities of food to add a fat layer sufficient to see the animal through the winter. Diet changes as the seasons progress. Spring is a difficult time as the new plants are just getting started and the bears, recently emerged from their winter den need to start to replenish fat. The spring meals consist of new plant growth and if available, carrion from winter kill mammals such as elk and deer. Summer provides improved food availability as plant growth has continued with tubers and grasses becoming plentiful. In addition, in late summer fish runs begin and provide a rich source of fat and protein. Fall sees the continuation of fish runs and the explosion of berries for the final effort to prepare for winter. These animals will also eat insects and rodents anytime the opportunity presents itself. The first snow and cold of approaching winter triggers the denning instinct. When this time occurs, the grizzly seeks out a remote site and digs a den in a location suitable for a long winter nap. Bears do not hibernate in the classic sense as they won't experience significant body temperature drop and reduction of bodily functions. They do however achieve a reduced state of activity and show an increased efficiency in metabolism of fat. Observers have seen bears awaken in mid winter, emerge from their den and walk about only to re-enter and resume sleeping.

Mating and cub rearing

Grizzly bear females mate and produce their first liter between one and one-half and four and one-half years of age. The actual achievement of sexual maturity is dependent on food supply. The bears mate in the May/June time frame after a brief courtship, which can last between 2 and 15 days. Females may mate with multiple males. This "promiscuous" strategy has probably evolved because the other option would involve males defending their right to breed with the females, leading to violent confrontations between extremely powerful animals. This could easily reduce the reproductive success. Although these battles sometimes occur, they are more the exception than the rule. The female will carry the fertilized eggs until she dens in the October or November timeframe. Implantation will occur if the health of the female is sufficient for her to have a good chance of successfully denning and delivering her cubs. The cubs are born during the winter anywhere from February through March. They are less than a pound in weight at birth and nearly helpless. Liters are normally two or three cubs, again depending on the diet of the mom. The female will nurse the cubs as she sleeps until they emerge as a family in the spring. The cubs will stay with their mother for two to four years during which time she will defend them from danger, including male bears, and will teach them the skills needed to survive on their own.

Territory and Dominance

Each bear has a territory in which it lives its daily life. Territoriality too is related to reproduction. A male will normally have a large territory that can include tens to hundreds of square miles. This territory is marked regularly to reduce the chances of males encountering other males since solitary animals are jealous of their "space" and defend it vigorously. The territory of the female is significantly smaller than the male; therefore, a male's territory will include that of several females. The female will share her territory with her female offspring. Their extraordinary sense of smell is the primary method by which they identify territory. The animals will scratch tress and scrap the ground to leave a scent unmistakable to other bears.

Territorial behavior is typical, but in the situation were food supplies are highly concentrated, such as fish runs, a more tolerant attitude can prevail. Situations where groups of bears are fishing show only a temporary reduction in the size of a territory but adult bears continue to demand space.

Dominance in the life of a bear can take on many manifestations. Females will aggressively defend cubs against all threats, even large males. Males will establish a hierarchy through size, threat displays, or occasional combat. When bears do congregate, the hierarchy is maintained and is regularly demonstrated (such places as at the best fishing spots).

Male bears extend their dominance and reproductive drive to the point that they have been known to kill cubs.

Places to see and photograph Grizzlies

Photographing grizzly bears in the wild can be a dangerous excursion, so the utmost in planning and care is necessary. Most zoos and some wild game parks have grizzlies and occasionally photos with a decent background can be made. If you want to photograph them in the wild areas of the lower forty eight states there are populations in the Yellowstone ecosystem and in Glacier National Park. Check with the rangers as to potential locations and always follow the park regulations to the letter. It is advisable to try this activity in a group rather than alone. Before starting out on a bear photography trip read the book Bear Attacks by Stephen Herrero. This book may sound a bit gruesome, and in fact some of the accounts are a bit unnerving, but it provides a valuable insight into bear behavior and how to deal with bears.