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“Dispatch, I’ve got bears coming out of the woodwork.”

While it isn’t wise to run in bear country, that is exactly what it feels like we’ve been doing. Running from one wildlife jam to another. In just this past week, we and our Sunday-thru-Wednesday colleagues on the brigade ran *52 jams in just the four days* of our shift. That’s just the ones we could get to!

taken during a quiet moment
Yup, that is Kathy in the yellow vest.

Merriam-Webster defines jam as “a crowded mass that impedes or blocks movement”. When wildlife becomes visible from the roadside, visitors naturally want to have a look. Too many people and cars wanting the same piece of real estate can certainly block and impede movement, of both other visitors and the animals themselves.

A 43 second clip of a wildlife jam that has formed in the hope that a grizzly bear will appear. It is very mellow, no one is running across the road, cars haven’t stopped in the middle of the road with doors open, photographers and their tripods aren’t blocking the road, cars have their tires over the white fog line — kind of a dream jam for our perspective. 😀

As I write this, at noon on a day off, there are three bear jams and a jam for a moose with twin calves running in different parts of the park. Since we arrived in mid-April, the pace and size of the jams has been growing. The snow has lingered in the higher elevations (indeed, there are still snow banks here in shaded spots on the valley floor as of 1 June), keeping the bears, grizzly and black bear alike in the wide open sage nibbling biscuit root and springbeauty flowers, dandelion greens, Arrowleaf Balsamroot, digging up squirrel caches (eating the occasional squirrel), and other tender green plants emerging after a long winter. 

even the snow is tired of winter
biscuit root

It is also elk calving season. For the next several weeks grizzlies and wolves will be hunting those calves. For the first four weeks of calf’s live they are vulnerable to grizzlies. Once they reach four weeks old, they are now fast enough to out run a grizzly, which by the way can reach the speed of 42 miles an hour. Once the last calf born in the area reaches that ripe old age, the grizzly’s opportunities for protein goes back to ants, termites, worms, moths, and random discoveries of a carcass. 

The calves are born without an odor as protection against discovery. The bears aren’t using their noses to find the calves. They use a methodical grid search. It’s a bit like watching anti-submarine warfare play out at 7,000 feet.

On a five and a half hour long jam this week, we watched a momma grizzly slowly stalk to within a hundred yards of a female elk in the sage brush, taking care to approach from downwind. When the elk became visibly agitated, the grizzly started zig-zagging through the clumps of fragrant sage. Her three yearling cubs trailing behind her like a trawler net. The cow attempted to draw the bears off with her neck stretched out and her nose high in the air, trying to appear as big as she could to be noticed and lure the bears away from her calf. They were not fooled. 

Suddenly, with two large bounds forward, the grizzly pounced on a calf hidden in the vegetation. In earlier kills this year, the adult bear was seen to kill the calf herself. This time it appeared that she held the calf and her three yearling cubs, (who will have to do this for themselves next year) handled the job. I was fascinated to notice that there didn’t seem to be any arguing or wrestling over a place at the table like we sometimes see in wildlife TV programs of hyenas or other predator species at a carcass. 

We were Very Lucky to be able to witness this drama play out, and I do mean out. The elk and bears were 300 or more yards from the roadside. Whether it was luck or guardian angels, we don’t know, but for some reason this jam did not grow much bigger than about 50-75 cars. The fascinated onlookers largely obeyed the rules and were happy to point out the bears to new arrivals and even share a peek through their spotting scopes. That let us peek at the bears ourselves when there was a lull in the traffic rolling by and the parking situation remained calm. A calm jam also means that we have the time to answer visitor questions for more people and sometimes with more in-depth answers and explanations, which is always fun.

visitors watching a grizzly bear with cubs hunt an elk calf — they really are out there!
A grizzly cub gets itself stuck on the top of a snow drift while Mom and its siblings sit just below, waiting for it to figure out how to get down.

The jams may be for any species in the park. You can already guess the number one jam is for bears, then of course moose, elk, and bison. But you may also be surprised to know that we have stood roadside to clear up jams for: fox, coyote, grouse, otters, beavers, herons, and new to us this week; Great Gray Owls. 

a peaceful, early morning bear jam that blew up ten minutes after the photo was taken

One owl jam, in the dim, foggy light of early morning was as quiet as a church and attracted only about twenty cars at a time. People tip-toed to set up their camera tripods on the road shoulder, and didn’t slam doors. The day before the owl was treated like a rock star and generated a jam rivaling one for a grizzly bear with cubs. Doors slamming, or left open, people running without looking, dogs barking, it was madness! The owl put up with that commotion until someone decided to get too close and it let every one know that was unacceptable by flying off, deep into the woods. 

this Great Gray Owl in the tree top attracted a lot of attention

We’ve met some fun folks at the quieter jams; volunteers from other parks, people that want to find out how to become a park volunteer, retired military, school teachers, professional (and aspiring) photographers, parents of kids fascinated by poop who want photos of scat identified. Sometimes visitors just want someone to listen to their adventures in Yellowstone and all the bison and bears they saw there. Sometimes they are very curious about the animal behavior they just watched which spills out in a breathless run-on question. Occasionally I have to stop a visitor, saying something like, “Wow! That was four questions in one! Let me answer those and then tell me what else you want to know.” 

Other questions can be very out of the blue. Dave was asked, “Is that your real hair color? Did you dye it? Are you from California?” That one still cracks us up. 

At another jam we stopped at solely to untangle the scary parking situation, visitors told us how happy and excited they were to see a moose. 

I hate when that happens — because they were looking at a bull elk. Do I just smile and agree that it is indeed a wonderful thing? Or do I dash their excitement and educate them to what they are looking at. But this week I tried a new strategy — I ask them what about the animal makes them believe they are looking at a moose. That opens up a much better conversation and I can help them recognize the difference between the species. It is fascinating to learn what clues they are using. As an example, one person said an elk had been pointed out to her and it didn’t have horns on its head. This animal had [antlers] on its head so it must be a moose. I hadn’t really thought about deciding that way. Luckily, this visitor was not unhappy to be wrong, and I gave her some tips on where to look for moose in the park she didn’t know about. 

These encounters stick out this week, because they are the exception to how our days went. We had our first bear jams begin just after 6 am. [Can someone tell me why they choose blind curves as the best place to make themselves known?] Even at that hour, jams can go from two cars to nearly a hundred cars strung along the road shoulder in a blink of an eye. Once the folks staying in hotels in town have their breakfast and roll into the park, jams can push two hundred cars. About 90% of our time at a jam is watching the road, the cars, and the pedestrians. We’ll keep a weather eye on the animal to make sure we are maintaining a safe distance and that the animal isn’t showing signs of agitation or wanting to cross the road.

Some days we get to eat the lunch I packed, but most we don’t. It seems the minute I unwrap my ham and cheese, dispatch calls and we are off again. Many days we do a contact turnover – meaning the afternoon shift just comes to our jam, we tell them how we organized things, and leave them to it. Sometimes things are still so dynamic we stay on station until the situation is in hand and then we head for camp. 

We spend 90% of our time watching people and cars

One afternoon, we were with a modest jam for a cinnamon colored black bear quietly foraging in the sage flats. A large part of team on duty was attending to a grizzly with cubs that was very near the road and attracting a lot of attention. Then dispatch called and said there was a new bear that popped up near the road, a mile from the grizzly jam. It was so chaotic that we called law enforcement for assistance. It takes some work but we get the situation under control, however the bear keeps playing hide and seek by disappearing behind a bench in the terrain and then popping up like she wants to cross. Then it starts raining. 

Eventually, the jams merge. We have the hide-and-seek black bear on one side of the road and a grizzly family on the other. I can tell you there was very little bear watching on our part, unless it was through the lens of a range finder! Thankfully, eventually, the bears all retreated out of sight into the woods. 

We’ve been called to assist at the south end of a fast moving jam (bears are walking parallel to the road) and it is tough getting through — the visitors are besides themselves with excitement as you can see.

The brigade barely catches its breath when, in the northern part of the park, three unrelated grizzly bears pop out of the woods in different places along one short stretch of road, all at the same time. Knowing the team has had four weeks of driving from jam to jam, I think you can easily sympathize with our ranger’s call to dispatch, “I’ve got bears coming out of the woodwork” very succinctly capturing the need for reinforcement at his battle-station. 

As a postscript, we were interested to learn this week that the wildlife brigade comprises just 12% of the volunteer force, and contributes a little over 25% of the donated hours to the park.

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2 thoughts on ““Dispatch, I’ve got bears coming out of the woodwork.”

  1. Wow, you have a lot of patience with people. I’d be offering them to bears for lunch 😉

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