We were lucky to spot this brown-colored black bear crossing a road in Yellowstone. Only about half the black bears in the Rocky Mountains are black. Other colors include cinnamon, blond, or brown, and bears of those colors might be mistaken for grizzlies—as this bear was by one of the other excited onlookers along the roadside. But grizzlies are usually larger and have a shoulder hump, smaller ears, and a concave facial profile.
Yellowstone’s black bears have been here longer than grizzlies. About 1.5 million years ago ancestors of the black bear began roaming Eurasia. They eventually crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America and evolved into the American black bear. Grizzly bears followed later, joining the black bear and a giant short-faced bear in the Yellowstone area.
That giant short-faced bear would have been something to see, though I wouldn’t want to spook one while I was deep in the backcountry. Giant short-faced bears weighed as much as a ton and stood six feet tall at the shoulder when on all fours. This was perhaps the largest and fastest carnivore to roam North America. It brought down bison, horses, and even mammoths. While fossils of this bear have been found near Yellowstone, by the end of the last Ice Age, the giant short-faced bear was extinct, perhaps out competed by grizzlies or a victim of climate and habitat change. Its disappearance left Yellowstone with the two types of bears visitors—like all of us along that roadside—come to see.
The black bear, like Yellowstone’s bison, is a survivor. A bear’s varied diet, including grasses, fruits, nuts, honey, and occasionally insects and meat, could have helped it outlast the short-faced bear which may have fed primarily on meat. The smaller black bear may have been able to coexist with the larger grizzly because the black bear learned to live in woodlands and leave the more open landscape to grizzlies.
Black bears are well equipped for survival. They are excellent climbers, fast runners, and powerful swimmers. Their eyesight and sense of hearing are better than ours. But by far their strongest sense is that of smell, which is about seven times greater than a dog’s.
I wish this black bear—and many others—luck in handling the onslaught of yet another species, Homo sapiens, with our never-ending population increase and steady encroachment into bear territory.
His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves is available signed and on Amazon.
The sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed or on Amazon.
Photo of brown black bear by Rick Lamplugh