Yellowstone Reports

Printer-friendly version

Bear Trees

On the hunt for claw marks
by Dan Hartman

Aug. 17, 2011

George Clokey and his students from Wisconsin’s WhiteWater University stopped by yesterday.  They wanted to see some bear trees, so I took the 21 students on a walk along the Soda Butte just inside the Park's Northeast border.  We walked across a large meadow, then just as we entered a thick stand of timber, we came across our first bear tree.  A lodgepole's bark was clawed to shreds.  Just behind were the bones from an old elk carcass.  The grizzly obviously marked the tree to claim the carcass for its own.
On through the timber then across another meadow and we arrived at a small clearing just inside the trees.  It was here, ten years ago, that Cassie photographed an elk skeleton that lay beneath a fallen tree.  We had determined the bull had been killed by the tree, and Cassie's picture later appeared on the back cover of Montana Outdoors.  It was her first published photo.  Today the story is still visible.  The tree lies across the elk’s vertabrae.  The skull just beyond.  This phenomenon has to be rare but not completely unheard of.   In 1987, Cindy and I came across a bull elk whose right antler was pinned to the ground by a large fallen aspen.  Then just a couple of years ago Cassie found a bull elk skeleton beneath a tree near Hellroaring.  We really weren’t sure if the tree killed this elk or fell after the elk had expired.
The kids and I move on upslope to gain a great view of Baronette.  We picked out two mountain goats before working our way along the slope to a large tree standing out in the open.  Every time I pass this big old tree I noticed new claw marks.  It must be some grizzly’s boundary marker. When we re-entered the timber once more, I was excited to find whitewash from a small owl. Either a saw-whet or boreal. We then climbed up into the rocks until we came to a natural cave where I had discovered mountain lion sign (scat) last year.  We found only old deer bones today.
As we circled back down, we found still another lodgepole with claw marks.  These were relatively fresh.   Sap streamed out of the slashes.  Years ago a Native American sent me a letter asking for hardened balls of sap from a bear tree.   They were to be used to make a necklace, which would be worn for his sun dance.   I was to thank the tree and leave tobacco as a gift. I was glad to oblige.

For help referencing place names, use the Yellowstone SpotR app:
    • Download Yellowstone SpotR for Apple iOS
    • Download Yellowstone SpotR for Google Android


View slide show

Bear Tree

Tree Killed Bull Elk

You can see the vertebrae under the tree

Cassies Cover Shot 10 Years Ago

Claw Marks

21 Strong Hiking Through The Woods

Menancing Cougar In The Den

Fresh Claw Marks