Behind the Scenes: A Yellowstone Bear Jam

Seeing a bear in Yellowstone is a highlight for many, helping to cement the first National Park as a favorite place to return year after year. There is nothing quite like rounding a corner and seeing one of North America’s most magnificent creatures roaming through the sage or forests. The one thing that is often overlooked when we think of these bear sightings is that we won’t be the only people on the scene. More often than not, when you see a bear, you’ll encounter a bear jam.

Bear jams have quickly become the ire of social media posts, and can be quite an intense situation. Despite the presumed chaos, there are ways to keep both yourself and the wildlife safe while watching bears in Yellowstone National Park.

You’ve seen the pictures from Yellowstone. 

A bear, maybe with cubs in tow, walking across a road, weaving through a mass of cars and people. Elation and shock visible on the face of the humans, while the bear appears to nervously look back and forth for a spot to cross. 

The picture ignites an emotional response, usually in outrage and frustration at the masses gathered, with hundreds of comments made on the social media page where the image was shared. Fist shaking, name calling and angry face emojis run rampant, as aspersions are cast wide at everyone in the crowd.

“If I was there, I wouldn’t engage in such behavior.”

From afar, be it on a screen or a couple dozen cars behind the action, we see those images and it is easy to judge. Yet, we rarely ask ourselves questions like: 

“Why did this scene happen?” 

“How did it reach the point where the bear was forced to weave between cars and people?” 

“How can scenes like this be avoided?”

It is easy to assume that everyone saw the bear and stopped immediately, jumping out of their cars and rushing toward the bear. That does happen, but much less than pictures would have you believe. Pictures are just part of the story of bear jams. 

Before we go any further, it is important to be reminded of the appropriate viewing distances for wildlife watching in Yellowstone. The National Park Service states that “to protect yourself and the animals you come to watch, always remain at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) from all other wildlife.” 

If you have been closer than a football field to a bear, you are breaking a rule. If you have gotten closer than seventy-five feet to an elk or deer, you have broken a rule. Many will deny that they have gotten closer to wildlife than they should, but the overwhelming majority of visitors to the park, both locals and those from afar, have broken these rules in the park.

A bear jam south of Canyon

Five Types of Bear Sightings and Jams

While each bear sighting is different, there are five main types of bear sightings while driving through Yellowstone National Park. Each has their own risk of a bear crossing, ranging from rare to expected. What they all have in common is that people will be out of their cars to see the animal. 

The Glimpse Through the Trees

For many, this will be the way you see a bear in Yellowstone. These bear jams can back up quite far, but usually, you’ll approach cars (often near Canyon or Tower, or any of the other places where bear sightings are more common) and see that they are stopped on the side of the road. A small crowd will have gathered, looking and pointing into the trees. In the distance, a bear will be walking through the trees, popping in and out of vision. The chances of a road crossing on these bear sightings is a toss up, depending how far away the bear is and which direction it is moving. 

The Spotting Scope Sighting

Spotting scope sightings of bears in Yellowstone are typically less popular and cause less bear jams. People will be milling about in pullouts, look less enthusiastic than with other bear sightings. You’ll see spotting scopes set up and pointed in one direction, and often chairs set out near their tripods. They are looking out on some far off ridge, where a bear will be wandering around, too far to be seen well with your naked eye. You’ll need binoculars or a spotting scope for these and the likelihood that the bear will be crossing a road any time soon is minimal. 

On a Kill

Probably the most rare encounter, seeing a bear on a kill is an event that will have cars stopped in both directions and every pullout full. Typically within allowable viewing distance, bears on kills also have a much higher likelihood of a ranger or volunteer on the scene. An important thing to note here is that the kill may be closer than the recommended viewing distance of 100 yards, but rangers or bear enthusiasts will almost always be helping to control the flow of people. The likelihood of the bear approaching the road is about 50-50, depending on a number of factors. When watching a bear on a kill, always remain close to your vehicle, as bears eating can be more aggressive. 

The Already Existing Bear Jam

Rolling up on an already existing bear jams means two things. You won’t be able to get much closer than where traffic is stopped on the road and a ranger is already on the scene or will be arriving shortly. Chances are, this is the type of bear jam you will experience when in the park. In order to see the bear, you’ll have to get out of your car, which many do. This type of bear sighting can have one of the higher likelihood of having a bear cross the road, as cars have probably been pulled off on the side of the road for quite awhile, watching the bear. If the bear decides to head toward the road, people aren’t going to drive away. Instead, people return in the direction of their cars, giving the bear just enough room to walk between cars. 

The Wanderer

This is how pictures like the header image are taken. A bear, off in a field, a few hundred yards away, slowly wanders. For minutes or even an hour, the bear will slowly make its way closer to the road. Each passing minute means more cars, eventually all but stopping traffic in both directions. The bear will eventually want to cross, finding the path of minimal stress and worry. It will walk directly in front of cars. People will be seen in the distance, mouths open in shock that they had gotten so lucky. Fear is next to non-existent, despite being much closer than the 100 yards one should be from a bear. The bear will approach, run across the road and then slowly roam on the other side of the road. 

How a Bear Jam Forms

Bear jams are pretty much unavoidable when a bear is near the road. Once one car spots a bear, all other cars around will slow down or stop to see what they are looking at. Soon, with the traffic of the day, more cars will stop, especially if they know a bear is being watched. Pullouts will be filled and cars will began to start parking on the shoulder, where they can. A critical mass will occur and before too long, the road is stopped. One or two cars may pass, but generally, cars are no longer driving through the bear jam. It is on these bear jams when people tend to approach wildlife. 

Jams form as fast as they disperse and within minutes of the bear leaving the area, traffic vanishes and all signs of the bear jam disappear with it.  

A Bear Jam in Swan Lake Flats

The Optics Versus the Reality

We look at images of bears online, in newspapers and magazines and get awestruck. We want that too. We want to see a bear in the wild’s of Yellowstone, roaming free. 

While gorgeous and inspiring, the images we typically see don’t share the whole story. We see a bear alone, or a sow with cubs and nothing else. Just out of frame, a multitude of cameras are set up, aimed on the grizzly or black bear in the distance. Flanking them, dozens of families stand with cameraphones in hand, snapping away, smiling and gleeful that they are witnessing a bear in real life. The closer to the road the bear gets, the more the bear jam swells, as every carloads of people passing through are curious about the crowds, then get excited about the bear. Cars park at a pullout and people walk to where others are standing.  

The bear will either leave the area or start to approach the road. If the bear leaves, the crowds quickly shrink and cars drive away. If it approaches the road, things change rapidly. While not captured in pictures, the closer the bear gets to the road, the more room a bear has to cross the road. You may see everyone outside in bear jams, looking as if they are approaching the bear, but this is almost never the reality. 

What we see from the pictures of the crowd looks like a madhouse- a mass of humanity, descending on a wild animal overwhelmed and not prepared for what it is seeing. The scene is usually much more nuanced than that. Those people, standing outside with their cameras in hand, were more than likely watching the bear when it was out in the distance. The optics in a still image make it appear as if no-one is in control and the bear is being mobbed. It is is important to note that this is rarely the case. Often during these chaotic looking road scenes, a ranger or volunteer is present, helping to manage the crowd and provide an opportunity for the bear to cross. 

The crowds actually grow more compact away from where the bear is heading, or in wildlife terms, the herd gathers, as there is strength in numbers. The bear starts heading for a small window that has appeared, between the crowds of people, quickly passing through to cross the road. 

Yes, it would be great if there was a way it didn’t have to cross the road and walk through cars, but this is a reality of the park. There are no wildlife overpasses. Human interaction with wildlife is unavoidable. 

Occasionally, you will have a bear right on the side of the road, with people getting uncomfortably close. When this occurs, one has two options before a ranger arrives. Say nothing or be proactive and encourage people to give the bear plenty of space. It is your choice. Taking pictures of those too close and then online shaming is not the responsible thing to do, especially if you care for the people and the bear’s safety. 

Responsible Behavior in a Bear Jam

The easiest way to be responsible while in a bear jam is to follow the rules. You can get out of your car, but once the bear is closer than the appropriate viewing distance, go back inside. While easy to follow, this is more than likely not going to happen, no matter how much people are told. During bear sightings, the herd mentality takes over and people tend to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. I call this being “Yellowstone Haze.” Elsewhere, seeing a bear wouldn’t elicit a reaction for someone to jump out of their car, but in Yellowstone, it is something that has happened since cars first drove through the park. 

If the bear starts to approach the road, head back to your car. Be vocal about it to others as you pass in a pleasant way, saying something like “We should head back to our cars so the bear can calmly and safely cross the road.” Not everyone will listen, but you’d be shocked how many will snap out of the Yellowstone Haze long enough to agree and return to their car. 

If you have a situation like “The Wanderer,” once a bear is first spotted, help to create a corridor for the bear to pass. Most people, when spoken to nicely about it, will be eager to help open up a section of the road until a ranger arrives. The longer a bear is visible, the more likely a ranger will be on the scene, but helping to keep the area safe right away will make the experience better for all.

Sure, some people will not be responsive, no matter what, but the herd mentality can act in our favor.

After all, we are all here for the same reason. 

 

Douglas Scott is the author of Wildlife Watching: Yellowstone and spends the majority of the year exploring and helping others have adventures in the park. Learn more about his visits to Yellowstone by engaging him on Twitter and Instagram.