Bear Safety Part 3: Tracking Grizzlies

Grizzly tracks on a beach
Photo: Larry Aumiller
Sand or mud are a great place find animal tracks like these grizzly bear prints on a beach in Alaska.

By Tatum McConnell, Communications Intern

In the northwestern U.S., our mountains, valleys, and waterways teem with life, but any intrepid outdoorsperson is likely to rank the things they see outdoors. We spot plants easily and admire their beauty and importance on the landscape. We see wildlife like deer, rabbits and squirrels less often, but they still have a common presence in wild spaces. A grizzly bear or other apex predator, however, is a much rarer find, with species like wolverine and lynx so elusive even researchers studying them will go years without spotting one.

This abundance of individual members of a species—or lack thereof—is the result of a concept known as the trophic pyramid. We can consider Earth’s biomass of life forms in a triangle, with primary producers like plants at the bottom, turning sunlight and soil nutrients into life. Next there are the consumers of the plants, all the way up the food chain to apex predators. This pyramid leaves less room for those predators and disperses them sparsely across wild spaces.

But despite this dispersion, there are ways to know the presence of these rare species in the natural spaces all around you. When it comes to bears, looking for tracks and other signs will bring the landscape to life and give you an important heads up when you’ve entered grizzly territory! In this final part of the bear safety series, we’re going to dive into how to spot bear tracks and other signs.

Paw Prints

Journal drawing comparing grizzly and black bear prints
Drawing by Tatum McConnell

One of the most common signs of the grizzly is its track. When I’m out in a natural space I pay special attention to muddy, sandy, or otherwise soft surfaces to look for evidence of any animals in the area. Just like us, wildlife typically prefer the path of least resistance—if humans aren’t around, they will use the same roads and trails we use, so these are great places to keep an eye out for tracks.

Grizzly and black bear tracks have a similar structure, with a large palm pad and five toes with claws present. The best way to tell the two apart is the space between the palm pad and toes, and the shape of the palm pad. As you can see in my journal drawing a black bear’s track (top left) has a wavier shape with less space between the toes and palm pad. A grizzly’s track (bottom right) on the other hand (or should I say other paw?), has a smoother shape, and enough room between the toes and palm pad to draw a line. Observing one of these tracks is a sure sign that a bear has been in the area recently.

Scat

The next best way to tell that there’s a bear in the area is through its scat. A good rule of thumb: If you see scat that looks so big only a mammoth could have made it…it’s probably from a bear! Bear scat can take many shapes depending on diet, from tubular plant-based scat to dark, twisted meat-based scat to large globs of berry-laced scat during the late-summer berry season. Aside from big domesticated animals like horses and cattle, however, a bear’s scat will almost always be the biggest pile on the mountain! Plus, with such varied diets, a closer look can show you what the bear has been eating lately, whether it’s vegetation, berries, fish or elk.

Look to the Trees

Grizzly tree rub
Grizzlies peel tree bark to eat the rich cambium layer below. (Photo courtesy of Rita Wolfe)

Finally, trees and wood can often reveal the presence of a bear. Bears use trees for a variety of things including communication and nutrition. You may have seen a video of a bear rubbing its back against the bark of a tree as if it were scratching a particularly stubborn itch (if you haven’t, check out the bottom of this post!). Grizzly bears actually use specific rub trees throughout the woods to share messages. This lets other bears know where they are and can help bears find one another to mate. The rubbing tears at the bark and can leave distinct marks that show a bear was there. Look closer and you may find claw or teeth marks from an enthusiastic bear as well as hair left behind. Two-toned silver-tipped hairs will show that a grizzly made the rub marks (that’s how the species got its “silvertip” nickname), while single-toned hairs will be left behind by a black bear.

Bears also enjoy snacking on the energy-rich cambium layer of a tree, the living part of the trunk. To access the cambium bears will slash through the bark and pull a strip upward, leaving a distinctly peeled section.

Bears find their food in all kinds of places, so the last place you might spot a sign of a bear is in a torn-up rotten log on the ground. Bears will claw their way through to eat bugs inside, leaving a pile of shredded wood behind.

Sharing Your Finds

We hope this info will help you spot a track or other grizzly sign next time you’re outdoors in bear country! Beyond the satisfaction of knowing you’ve shared the landscape with wildlife, honing your tracking skills will also help keep you safe and alert when you’re out in the mountains.

When you come upon bear sign, it’s time to remember how to act safely—you can brush up on it via our first post in this series, Bear Safety Part 1: Out and About in Grizzly Country. And if you live on the edge of wild country and enjoy tracking wildlife as an everyday routine, you might also benefit from our post on Bear-Proofing Your Home.

As always, send us your photos, videos, or stories about finding grizzly signs anytime via our Facebook and Instagram accounts. We love to hear about your adventures!

Learn more about the grizzly’s ecological role…

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