BILLINGS – It takes a hike over high ridges and numerous toppled lodgepole pine trees to find the small pool of fresh water in Yellowstone National Park.
This is not some out-of-the-way hot springs that adventurous tourists seek out to soak in. Instead, the well-worn trails marked by tracks leading to the site attest to its use as a “bear bathtub.”
The first of these pools was discovered more than a decade ago by Yellowstone bear researchers as they searched for a tracking collar that had fallen off one of the bears they were studying, according to an article in the recently released issue of the journal Yellowstone Science. The signal sent by the collar led them to the small pond at the end of a narrow gully surrounded by forested hills, according to the article’s lead author, Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear manager.
The radio transmitter identified the soft muck on the bottom of the pool as the resting place for the collar. Using a trekking pole, the collar was extracted and the important information it contained was downloaded. The researchers also took note of the pond.
It was described as a “bathtub-size pool of water, 2-3 feet deep and approximately 3-4 feet wide by 8-10 feet long. Four well-worn game trails, all with numerous bear tracks, led in to and out of the pool of water.”
Years later, the idea of placing a remote camera trap at the site was proposed by National Geographic magazine photographers as they sought to create unusual photos for an upcoming issue devoted entirely to Yellowstone National Park as the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service.
The cameras snapped a photo of one grizzly, its fur soaked, sitting at the end of the pool like a tourist relaxing in a pool at a four-star resort. Another photo shows one bear easing into the water as two others watch from behind, likely a sow and two yearling cubs.
“Photo and video documentation indicated (the pool) was used by multiple individuals of both black and grizzly bears,” the article stated. “Bears came to the pool, soaked, bathed and cooled off. Females brought their cubs to play at the pool. Even adult bears were observed playing with sticks pulled up from the bottom of the pool. Interestingly, bears also scent-marked along the edge of the pool, rubbing their necks and cheeks on the ground and lush grasses surrounding the pool. We hope to learn more about the scent-marking behavior observed at the pool. Regardless, it appears that bears enjoy a nice cold soak on a hot summer’s day as much as humans do.”
The article also noted that since that first collar was recovered from a bear bathtub, several others have been retrieved from similar remote, small ponds.
“The park likely has many such places visited by bears to bathe, soak, play and scent mark,” Gunther wrote. “The bear bathtub is just one of the many special places in Yellowstone National Park that grizzly bears have helped us discover.”
The use of camera traps points to the increasing role that specialized technology can play in aiding scientific research of typically shy animals like grizzly bears.
In a similar 2014 experiment cataloged in the journal, researchers fitted two male grizzly bears and one male black bear with collar-mounted cameras that captured 20 seconds of video every 20 minutes. The videos are meant to help “determine the animal’s activities and behavior at specific times and locations,” according to the article’s lead author, Nathaniel Bowersock, a Yellowstone wildlife biological technician.
The video from one of the grizzly bear’s cameras is still being processed and studied, but the 2,600 clips from the other two bears have revealed some interesting details that could be compiled into a new YouTube hit.
The black bear was a wanderer, ambling from near Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, where he was captured, to the West Yellowstone area. While scavenging on an elk carcass, the bruin killed and fed on “what appeared to be an old female black bear, after she approached too closely when he was feeding on the elk carcass.”
Although capturing that video may seem pretty amazing, what struck Bowersock as unusual was the speed with which the black bear “moved while foraging on small plants and mushrooms,” a pace similar to the bear’s usual traveling speed. The information gives new meaning to the phrase “a moveable feast.”
Although the black bear was most active during the day, the collared grizzly bear slept most of the day and foraged at night. Consequently, a lot of the video shows the grizzly sleeping in day beds. (It’s believed black bears forage in the day to avoid running into grizzlies at night.)
“One of the more interesting video segments from (the grizzly bear’s) collar was the distant lights of the town of Gardiner, Montana, while he fed in apple orchards at night along the Yellowstone River within the Gardiner Basin,” Bowersock wrote.
Although the study was small, Bowersock wrote that the technology has the potential “to increase our knowledge of bear activities, movements, food habits and interactions with other bears.”
Although technology can provide interesting insights to bears and their behavior, sometimes good old-fashioned animal husbandry is called for in Yellowstone as well. The recent issue of Yellowstone Science details the unusual story of the successful capture, nurturing and survival of an orphaned female cinnamon-colored black bear cub.
The bear was captured after it was seen trying to raid garbage cans in the developed area of Old Faithful in 2007. Thin and malnourished, the cub was snared and taken in a bear trap lined with hay to be nursed back to health along a service road in the Gardiner Basin.
Each day Yellowstone staff fed the bear, gave it fresh water and food while also cleaning any scat from its enclosure and changing out the hay.
“At one of the feeding sessions a dead elk was found next to the bear trap, along with a bald eagle and a pack of wolves,” Gunther wrote in the article. “From tracks at the scene, it looked like a small group of cow elk had come to the site to eat the hay being used to insulate the outside of the artificial den. A pack of wolves had then killed and consumed one of the elk. A bald eagle was also scavenging the elk. It’s interesting to imagine what the cub had thought of all the commotion outside of her artificial den as the pack of wolves killed an elk within feet of her winter home. The stories that bear cub could tell! To prevent further ungulate feeding on the hay, a temporary barbed wire fence was strung around the artificial den.”
Once the cub was healthy, its food was slowly reduced to encourage it to hibernate. In March, the still-hibernating bear was relocated to the wild where it would awaken and hopefully survive. Researchers had assumed the bear, marked with a green ear tag, had died since it was never seen again.
“Then, on June 7, 2015, an adult cinnamon black bear with a green ear tag in her right ear, accompanied by one cub, was observed approximately one mile south of the old Buffalo Picnic Area on the Dunraven Pass road,” Gunther wrote.
The bear, now 8 years old, had been photographed. The photo, turned in to bear biologists, clearly showed the bear’s numbered ear tag, confirming it was the same animal.
“The extra efforts in capturing and feeding the orphaned cub had paid off,” Gunther wrote. “She was now raising a cub of her own and had not been involved in any conflicts with people since attempting to break into dumpsters eight years earlier.”
Stories about the “grave-digger bear,” the documentation of grizzly cub adoptions by related bears and the deaths in 2014 of two long-lived grizzlies that had been transplanted to the park after getting into trouble in 1989 and 1996 are some of the other incredible tales that can be found in the 100-page publication, not to mention numerous photos of people and the humans who come to see bears in Yellowstone.
In his introduction to the articles, Gunther wrote: “When I first began working in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1980s, it was fairly uncommon to see a bear, grizzly or black. If you saw a dozen bears in a summer, you considered it a good bear year. Today, you can easily see a dozen bears in one morning or even on one bison carcass.”
The work of scientists like Gunther has helped restore the park’s grizzly bear population from the brink of extinction to an estimated 700 animals spread across more than 22,000 square miles of interconnected forests in three states. That revitalization has put the animals in the spotlight once again as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ponders removing grizzlies from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. No matter the outcome of that controversial issue, the public and scientists will continue to benefit from the ground-breaking work being done on the large carnivores in Yellowstone National Park and detailed in journals like Yellowstone Science.