Primetime Bear Watching in Glacier

By Beacon Staff

Below a massive red mountain, bears rustle ash branches, pluck berries, dig bulbs and overturn rocks in a frenzied food search. In the throes of hyperphasia, both black and grizzly bears focus on one impulse – bulking up for winter.

Like a magnet, Many Glacier lures bears in fall. When its abundant wild berry crop scents the air, salivating bruins traipse miles to hog down the fruit smorgasbord. Because so many bears amass in the valley, the area is one of the best places to watch grizzlies in the fall. Their foraging tactics are visible via binoculars, spotting scopes, and sometimes the naked eye. While hikers may find favorite trails cordoned off with an orange “closed” sign, wildlife watchers revel in sightings of bruins gorging themselves.

“Bears are pretty much concentrated on berries this time of year,” says John Waller, carnivore biologist for Glacier National Park. “They lose 20 percent of their body weight in denning and are trying to put that back on before winter.” For a healthy mature male grizzly that may weigh 600 to 650 pounds in the fall, that’s well over 100 pounds of fat to be gained.

In Many Glacier, rich crops of huckleberries, serviceberries, buffaloberries, mountain ash and chokecherries slather the slopes with their juicy reds, purples, and blues. Studies show that grizzly bears rely on berries at this time of year for over half of their diet. Some even come from Alberta for the wealthy pickings. They also dig for biscuitroot, wild onion, and glacier lily bulbs.

For wildlife watchers, the hyperphasic season makes for prime bear watching. But it’s also a dangerous time. “Bears are much like people. Their temperaments are fairly predictable, but they all have bad days,” explains Mark Wagner, interpretive ranger for Many Glacier’s Watchable Wildlife program. “When they are into serious eating, they can be more aggressive and unpredictable.” Wagner adds that they need to be given extra room in the fall when bears defend their personal plates even more.

Here, sightings are routine along Henkel and Altyn peaks, where open vistas aid visibility from the Swiftcurrent parking lot, roadway pullouts, and Many Glacier Hotel. The historic hotel (406-892-2525; www.glacierparkinc.com) even added a week to their schedule, staying open through Sept. 22 to accommodate grizzly watching. “It’s prime bear watching from the deck,” says Alicia Thompson, Marketing Director for Glacier Park Inc., adding that rooms are still available. The campground is also open throughout autumn, although it converts to primitive status after Sept. 21.

For roadside bear viewing, Wagner recommends staying next to vehicles and using binoculars or spotting scopes to increase safety. After all, the goal, he says, is to watch bears in their own habitat rather than encouraging them to become accustomed to people.

However, road pullouts for wildlife viewing are now fewer in Many Glacier. Large boulders block some prior pullouts, and signs indicating “no stopping zones” require continued driving past wildlife. Bear management ranger Bob Adams explains that these changes were instituted to avoid shutting off wildlife corridors. “Creating a bear jam prevents the bear from getting to its water source at Sherburne Reservoir or Swiftcurrent Lake,” he adds.

While bear gawkers relish the easy viewing, hikers may find favorite trails temporarily barricaded. The Iceberg/Ptarmigan Trail flanking Henkel’s foot closed on Aug. 29 due to bears. During closures, the park service patrols the trails, looking for sightings and signs that bears are using the paths. Fresh scat piles are one indication. Adams explains that the park service will re-open the trails after several successive clear patrols. (For trail info, 406/888-7800; www.nps.gov/glac.)

For wildlife watchers, the park service recommends staying at least a football field away from bears. “Enjoy them at a distance,” says Wagner. “It’s corny, but really the truth in the fall.”