Grizzly bear

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Grizzly bears once lived across much of western North America until European settlements and aggressive hunting eliminated most of the population.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the grizzly bear?

The grizzly bear is a North American subspecies of the brown bear. Grizzlies are typically brown, though their fur can appear to be white-tipped, or grizzled, lending them their name. Grizzly bears are protected by law in the continental United States—not in Alaska—though there have been some controversial attempts to remove those protections in recent years.

Diet and behavior

These awe-inspiring giants tend to be solitary animals—with the exception of females and their cubs—but at times they do congregate. Dramatic gatherings of grizzly bears can be seen at prime Alaskan fishing spots when the salmon run upstream for summer spawning. In this season, dozens of bears may gather to feast on the fish, craving fats that will sustain them through the long winter ahead.

Brown bears dig dens for winter hibernation, often holing up in a suitable-looking hillside. Females give birth during this winter rest, often to twins.

Grizzly bears are powerful, top-of-the-food-chain predators, yet much of their diet consists of nuts, berries, fruit, leaves, and roots. Bears also eat other animals, from rodents to moose.

Despite their impressive size, grizzlies have been clocked running at 30 miles an hour. They can be dangerous to humans, particularly if surprised or if humans come between a mother and her cubs.

Habitat

Grizzlies once lived in much of western North America and even roamed the Great Plains. These animals need a lot of space—their home range can encompass up to 600 square miles—so their ideal habitat is one that is isolated from development and has plenty of food and places to dig their dens.

Though European settlement gradually eliminated the bears from much of their original habitat, grizzly populations can still be found in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington State. They’re one of the most iconic residents of Yellowstone National Park. Many grizzlies also still roam the wilds of Canada and Alaska, where hunters pursue them as big game trophies.

Threats to survival

At its peak, the grizzly population numbered more than 50,000. But those numbers shrank dramatically as westward expansion plunked cities and towns in the middle of the grizzly bear’s habitat. Aggressive hunting in the early 20th century also threatened the survival of the grizzly bear. By the 1920s and 1930s, these bears had been reduced to less than 2 percent of their historical range. In the 1960s, it was estimated that there were only 600 to 800 remaining in the wild. In 1975, grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Conservation

Today, grizzlies are considered a conservation success story. Ever since they gained protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the population of grizzly bears has grown. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established recovery zones for the bears and set out to improve relationships between humans and bears by educating the public about these animals and establishing programs to reimburse ranchers for livestock bears killed.

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Though conservation measures have helped increase their numbers, grizzly bears remain endangered today.

Now there are more than five times the number of grizzlies than there were in 1975—and about 1,400 to 1,700 in the contiguous U.S. But they aren’t in the clear just yet. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist grizzly bears twice, both attempts have been blocked.

In 2017, the second attempt was blocked in federal courts over concerns about the lack of genetic diversity among this subspecies whose various populations live so far apart. Conservationists also worry that delisting grizzly bears would lead to renewed hunting that would again deplete the population.

Grizzly bears, explained Muscular backs, long claws, and sensitive noses help grizzly bears forage for the calories that will sustain them through hibernation.
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