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Friday, July 6, 2012

Yellowstone National Park: Cubs and coyote

Black bear and two cubs
(6/12,Yellowstone National Park)
I was able to spend a week in Yellowstone National Park this past June. I met up with relatives visiting from Australia. We had a great time and the kids got to see some amazing stuff. We saw over a dozen bears, but none were more exciting than our first. Here is a female with two cubs spotted along the road to Tower Falls. As is usual for YNP, there was a large crowd gathered to watch. There were also three rangers helping to control the situation. You will hear me echo this in future posts about this trip, but I cannot say enough about what a fantastic job the park staff did at all the various "jams" we encountered (bear, wolf, bison, etc.). They were friendly but insistent that the animals be given appropriate space and that traffic flow smoothly. As I tell my students all the time, the key to these roadside sightings is to find the first available legal parking space and grab it. Don't attempt to park with part of your vehicle on the road. Please note the positions of the two cubs near their mother.

Within a few minutes of our arrival, a braking and downshifting tour bus scared the female bear and she vocalized a huff that told her cubs "Danger!" and they headed for the big tree at the edge of the meadow. It is worth noting that one cub took this warning far more seriously than the other. Look at the photos and see that not only did one cub reach the tree much faster than the other but it also climbed much higher. That was also the cub that was closest to mom at the start. Why the difference? Is it related to personality of the cubs or perhaps slightly differing experiences already?
The second cub never actually left the ground
It is important to the story to tell you now that when the cubs left the tree, only one returned to the mother's side. Care to guess which one? :) The other cub kind of wandered in the other direction.
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
We were enjoying the sighting. As far as I know, this was my nephew Luc's first wild bear encounter. The other visitors were equally appreciative. The couple to our left spoke only in whispers despite the great distance from us to the bears. There were probably three dozen people standing at the edge of the meadow and a steady stream of traffic passing to our left. A ripple of excitement and murmers alerted me to a new player taking to the stage: a coyote. The coyote had just crossed the road and walked in front of an admiring line of spectators. Canis latrans had not seen the bears yet and I smiled thinking that the coyote was probably under the impression that we had all been waiting for HIS arrival. He did not disappoint as he stayed close and walked the entire length of the crowd.
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)

Coyote chasing bear cub
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
The coyote then turned its attention to the meadow and after a preliminary sniff he began to nose about for rodents, birds and even smaller prey. It was then that it spotted the bears. By now, the cubs had resumed their activities after the "Great Bus Scare of 4:30 pm" and the one cub had put some distance between itself and mom. I focused on the coyote and just kept my finger on the shutter. In a flash, I was rewarded with a burst of speed as the coyote took off after the cubs.

Coyote (foreground) chasing bear cub (background)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
Here is the coyote chasing the cub that had strayed farthest from the mother. It so happened that this cub was therefore closest to the tree. It made it up without a problem and I can assure you this time it DID take the threat seriously and went far up the tree. At this time the coyote stopped the pursuit and turned its attention to the other cub and the adult bear.

Mom literally chased her second cub up the tree.

Once the cubs were safe, she turned her attention to the coyote. 

The female bear ran several feet towards the coyote until it turned and fled.
Female black bear (left) chases off coyote (right)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
Note that she did not go very far. Once the coyote was retreating, mom took a hard right and ran about 30 yards from the cubs.
Black bear (left) and coyote (right)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
It was all very exciting. I was not rooting "for" or "against" any of the players; I was just enjoying the natural spectacle and soaking in as much as possible. I have never actually SEEN this behavior before. I have read about it and spoken about it with confidence, but seeing was another thing entirely. When I teach (whether to my class or a public audience) about safety around bears, I always include information about bears and cubs. Many people have heard that you should never get between a mother and her cubs. I always nod and say "That is true. I won't even get between a mother and her cubs at WalMart." But the rest of the story is that black bears rarely defend their cubs vigorously. They usually do exactly what this one did -- sends them up a tree (through a vocalization) and then makes herself scarce. Grizzly bears are another story entirely. Many people find it easier to just lump all bears together (much like people that only know that poison ivy has "three leaves", so they avoid ALL three-leafed plants rather than learning the one to avoid). It is worth noting again that in this instance mom DID turn and face the threat and even ran towards the coyote. But she quickly gave up on that.

Coyote (foreground) carefully watching bear cubs (background)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
It took a while, but the cubs did come down from the tree. When they hit the ground, they headed right over to their mother who was in some thick brush. I could only speculate on how much I was missing being so far away. Were they in vocal communication? As the cubs moved, they caught the attention of the coyote again and it came to investigate. At one point, it was closer to the cubs than the mother bear was but it made no attempt to reach them. Again, was there some sort of communication taking place that I was missing? Was it all just visual cues like ear position and such or was there some vocalizing or other things happening?

Coyote crossing road in Yellowstone National Park
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
The cubs reached the mother without incident. The coyote decided it had enough and went back across the road from whence it came. We headed back to the car with the kids both saying "I'm hungry."


  1. Spectacular entry again (as usual). I yearn for the chance at an opportunity like this one. I have been to YNP, but I was young and uneducated; I saw nothing of the experiences you have had. Thank you for sharing.

  2. You are a very funny man, JVN. I look forward to the day you publish a memoir. And I get a signed copy (to sell on Ebay)...

    Less than 2 weeks til Denali, and I'm very anxious for experiences like this!


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