by Rick Lamplugh
Nov. 25, 2015
The sun is not yet up when Mary and I pull off Yellowstone’s Mammoth to Norris Road, turn off the headlights, and cut the engine. As our eyes adjust to the low light, we can barely make out the meadow where the big grizzly fed on a carcass yesterday. Filled with anticipation, we peer into the dimness, everything mysterious shades of black and gray.
Silent moments pass. With increasing daylight, the tops of meadow-edge conifers become jagged silhouettes that pierce the brightening sky. Mary can now scan with binoculars. She spots two cow elk, just moving shadows, and whispers, “Their heads are up. They are way alert.” Her head swivels as she tracks the elk, moving quickly away from where the bear fed. When they disappear behind a hummock, she scans back toward the meadow. Moments later she exclaims, “There’s the bear! He’s walking through the grass.” When he saunters into the conifers, she whispers with obvious disappointment, “He’s gone. I can’t see him.”
Mary places the binoculars on the dashboard, glances at me, turns back to her window, and sighs, “I wish some ravens would fly in to show where that carcass is.”
Less than a minute later she says, “Oh, my gosh, there are four ravens flying in.” As they land in the top of a conifer, she pleads, “Come on. Show me. Show me.”
We laugh and relax. Nothing beats ravens for finding carcasses and wolves. Maybe today a pack will come to claim the meal the bear has left.
We figure this is an elk that the bear took from wolves to begin with. That’s what usually happens, since bears are not fast enough to bring down a healthy adult elk. But wolves sure are, and they hunt all year long. That provides plenty of meals to steal. This bounty may have even changed the bears’ hibernation schedule. “Bears appear to be remaining out longer in the fall and coming out earlier in the spring,” according to Jim Halfpenny, in his book Yellowstone Bears in the Wild.
Bears commandeer wolf kills in spring, summer, and fall. The exchange is simple: If a bear wants a wolf kill, the bear takes a wolf kill. And that’s what probably happened here. Yesterday morning, about a mile north of where we now sit, we enjoyed watching a black wolf bound through a meadow. As he trotted in the direction of Bunsen Peak, he stopped several times to howl. Mesmerized, we listened as a pack replied from the southeast.
After the black wolf climbed the slope of Bunsen Peak and disappeared from our view, we turned around and watched a herd of fifteen elk, including calves-of-the-year, leave the area. After the elk departed, we drove about a mile south and came upon the meadow with the grizzly. We calculated the distance from the lone wolf and realized that the responding howls may have come from a pack just east of this meadow.
Had this male bear taken an elk from that howling pack? Had the elk come from the herd we saw depart? We love such mysteries.
After a spectacular sunrise, we watched as the big bear—150 yards from the road—ate, stopped, looked around, sniffed the air. At one point he stared at us and yawned; through the spotting scope, we could see blood on his teeth. Over the next two hours, he never went more than a few yards from his meal. No scavengers appeared.
Though an elk provides a large and easily digestible meal for grizzlies, meat makes up only a portion of their diet. Grizzlies are omnivores, just like us humans, and their menus vary by season. During a typical year, according to Yellowstone Resources and Issues, about two-thirds of their diet will come from 266 species of plants. They devour grass, roots, truffles, mushrooms, and white bark pine nuts. They munch insects such as ants and army cutworm moths. They ravage food caches of pocket gophers. They snatch fish.
Since late summer though, this bear has had one burning desire: to pack as much food in as possible before disappearing into his den. Now, in late October, he is in the throes of what is called hyperphagia, a time when getting fat is all that matters. During this phase a bear, says Halfpenny, may go for days without sleeping and gain as much as three pounds in one day, ninety pounds in September alone.
This obsessed bear isn’t the only animal that needs to eat. So we set our alarm and returned to the roadside today in hopes that wolves, coyotes, eagles, ravens, or magpies might show their hungry faces.
Mary picks up the binoculars from the dashboard and zooms in on one of the four ravens that sits in the conifer. She slowly scans down the tree and along the meadow and says, “Yes! There’s a coyote coming in.”
We giggle as she hands me the binoculars. I watch in amazement as the grasses below the conifer part and a coyote’s exquisite head appears. He stops, looks toward us, stands frozen as if debating whether to proceed. Then he pads toward a raven pecking at the remains.
Mary opens her door, grabs the spotting scope, and scrambles down the roadside bank. I join her, and we watch as magpies and more ravens arrive. Soon the coyote is joined by another, probably its mate since neither is fighting to claim the meal.
Mary, her eye glued to the scope, whispers, “Whoa, there’s the bear. He’s coming out of the woods and heading for the coyotes.”
To get a better view of what may happen, she shoulders the scope and walks about twenty yards up the road. I follow her past cars that are parked on both sides of the narrow road, discharging people with scopes and cameras. Another day of wildlife watching—one of the last remaining—has begun. In a few days this road and the rest of Yellowstone’e Grand Loop will be inaccessible, behind locked gates, and buried under snow. Which is exactly why we—and many of these visitors—are here.
This bear is a bonus; he will soon be inaccessible too. By mid-November he will be in his den and out of our sight. If food is plentiful this bear may stay out longer, but almost all of Yellowstone’s 150 bears have denned by the first week of December. This male may hole up for a little more than four months. A pregnant female, on the other hand, may den almost six months.
Wherever this big guy chooses to sleep, he may excavate over the course of a week up to a ton of material using his big paws and long claws. Once finished he may chew off spruce or fir boughs, drag them to the den, and build a thick, insulating nest to curl into. Once snow falls, it will cover the den’s entrance and add some insulation.
During hibernation, he will not eat, drink, defecate, or urinate. And his body will change. According to Yellowstone Resources and Issues, his temperature may drop twelve degrees. His respiration, normally six to ten breaths per minute, will slow to about one per minute. His heart rate will fall from around fifty beats per minute to less than twenty. While he may lose almost a third of his body weight, he will maintain muscle mass. (I’d sure love to be able to stay in bed for four months and stay fit.)
Since bears have been hibernating while Mary and I spent the last four winters in the park, we have had little opportunity to watch grizzlies. We enjoyed many winter hours of watching feeding wolves chase or ignore coyotes, ravens, magpies, and eagles. Now that we live year-round just outside the park, we are excited about watching bears like this one handle scavengers. We figure that a careful coyote—like a watchful wolf—has little to fear, since a bear isn’t quick enough to catch either. As Doug Smith and Gary Ferguson write in Decade of the Wolf, “For the most part wolves are to bears what mosquitoes might be to the rest of us—pesky annoyances.”
From the roadside, Mary and I watch in amazement as one of the two coyote comes within a couple of feet of the feeding bear’s head full of teeth. The coyote stops and stares at the bear, perhaps assessing his temperament. Satisfied, the coyote sidles up to the carcass, drops its head, shakes it from side to side, pulls away, and starts chewing. The bear appears not to notice.
The other coyote is busy near the grizzly’s rear. The bear glances back, takes another bite, and then lunges at that coyote, which sprints away, tail between its legs. The second coyote hustles toward the conifers. The bear returns to eating. And in a few moments so do the coyotes, unharmed and still hungry.
A raven lands on the branches of a dead and downed tree just behind the bear, watches for a moment, and then drops to the ground, amid magpies and other ravens. It pecks and pulls and takes flight, a strip of meat dangling from its beak. It will cache that prize, a meal for later.
For two hours we watch this scene, enjoying how so many of Yellowstone’s animals share a meal.
A few days later, just hours after park rangers removed the signs that kept visitors away from the bear, Mary and I walked across the meadow to study up close the site that we had spent hours watching from afar. We returned on a second day and again on a third with some friends.
Just in front of the downed tree where the ravens had perched was a ten foot by twenty-five foot area that looked like a garden plot ready for spring planting. The grasses were gone, the soil turned. Two small depressions had been dug. Along the edges of this dining area were many piles of bear and coyote scat. On a trail near the kill site we found fresh wolf scat.
Some yards from that feeding area, closer to the forest edge and scattered between knee-high sagebrush were many clumps of hair. The strands were about two inches long, the top portion elk-tan, the rest white. We guessed this was where the wolves brought the elk down.
The only other remnant of the elk we found was a relatively small left lower jaw bone, teeth intact. Since, the teeth showed almost no wear, we inferred that the meal had been an elk calf-of-the-year, perhaps from that herd we saw.
Only the bear and maybe some wolves know what actually happened; our interpretation could be wrong. But for me, it’s trying to solve the mystery that’s so delightful. Each visit to search the site for clues left me with a sense of awe and a feeling of gratitude that I am lucky enough to live near here and have the time to try and understand how this elk became what noted biologist John Varley once called “food for the masses.”
Comments? Questions? I welcome your feedback. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
To see a video that Mary and I made of coyotes communicating while sharing a meal.
Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon best seller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.