Glacier Park Collection

With a higher density of grizzly bears than any other national park in the lower 48, Montana’s Glacier National Park is undeniably “bear country.” Staying bear aware is crucial while exploring here, both to keep you and the four-legged locals safe.

“It's safe to assume when you're anywhere in Glacier, it hasn’t been very long since a bear passed by,” says John Waller, a wildlife biologist and carnivore program manager at Glacier National Park.

Spotting a bear is a common Glacier bucket-list item for our guests. We get it — bears are endlessly fascinating and (in the right circumstances) undeniably adorable. Of course, a certain level of caution is essential should you cross paths with one of these iconic creatures.

Here’s what you need to know about bears ahead of your Glacier adventure.

What kinds of bears are in Glacier National Park?

You’ll find two species of bears in Glacier National Park: black bears and grizzly bears (also known as brown bears). Don’t rely on color to tell them apart — grizzlies can be black and black bears can be blonde. Their distinguishing features can be found in their snout and back. Here's what to look for:

  • Grizzlies have a hump between their shoulders and a rounded “dished” face. Black bears have a longer snout and bigger ears.
  • Size matters. Male Grizzlies can be up to twice as large as a male black bear (up to 661 lbs or 300 kg).

A close up view of a grizzly bear.

Photo: Grizzly bear

A close up view of a black bear.

Photo: Black bear

How many bears are in Glacier National Park?

There are nearly 1,000 bears in Glacier National Park, with around 600 black bears and 300 grizzlies living within the gates. Of course, those numbers can fluctuate — bears aren’t too respectful of borders and boundaries, after all.

“Half of the grizzly bears in the park spend part of their life outside the park,” says Waller. “So, it depends if you’re asking on Tuesday or Friday.”

A bear rubbing its back on a tree.

Photo: A grizzly enjoys a back rub on a tree rigged with a hair snag.

As grizzlies are listed under the Endangered Species Act, there is a particular interest in tracking population numbers. A study conducted in 2004 saw DNA samples gathered from hair snag sites (bits of barb wire left on popular rub trees, baited to attract nearby bears). These sample results were used to estimate a baseline bear population for the whole ecosystem that has been updated using survival and reproduction trends in the years since.

What do bears in Glacier eat?

Waller describes bears as “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they’re adaptable and eat what’s available nearby. While their relatives in Alaska are famous for catching fresh salmon, Glacier bears primarily eat vegetation, such as berries, flowering plants, roots and grasses, along with the occasional small rodent, weakened animal or other meat source.

Bears’ opportunistic eating habits are also why securing your own food (and trash) is so important. Be vigilant in camp clean-ups and pack out all odorous items. Bears associating humans with an easy meal is a situation that rarely ends well for either party.

When are bears active?

Glacier bears typically emerge from their winter dens around March or April and head back to sleep in early December.

For the first few weeks after appearing, they’ll hang around their dens to re-acclimate before heading down to lower elevations. Grizzlies typically den in high mountain basins, while black bears choose locations a little lower down.

A mother bear walks across a meadow with two small cubs.

Photo: Cubs are born in winter dens, typically in litters of two to three.

Technically, bears don’t hibernate — they enter a deep sleep known as torpor, which allows them to awaken if necessary, such as in the event of their den collapsing or other detected dangers. Cubs are also born in the dens, where they can safely nurse and grow before emerging at around three months old.

Most Glacier bear sightings happen during berry season, from July through September. As berries ripen at higher elevations late in the season, the bears follow them upward. They’ll continue to look for late-season snacks (typically scavenging meat or looking for wounded animals) through November before denning for the winter.

How can I stay bear aware while exploring Glacier?

The National Park Service breaks down bear safety on their site. The basics are:

  • Make noise: Clapping your hands and shouting around blind corners are time trusted tactics in letting bears know you’re around. Bear bells also work, though their quiet volume can be lost to natural surroundings.
  • Hike in Groups: There’s safety in numbers. A hiking crew of three or more is far less likely to be challenged by a bear than a solo trekker.
  • Travel Slowly: The worst thing you can do is surprise a bear. Be intentional when moving through bear territory. The park service strongly discourages trail running.
  • Carry Bear Spray: You’ll be glad you have it if you need it! You can find bear spray at any outdoor shop near Glacier and can even rent a cannister at shops like Glacier Outfitters.
  • Stay Aware: Use extra care around blind corners, take note of wind, streams or other noisy elements, keep an eye out for bear signs and know when you’re in feeding areas — anywhere berry patches, cow parsnips thickets or glacier lilies are plentiful.
  • Secure Food and Garbage: As mentioned above, be sure to safely secure all food and odorous items and pack out all garbage. “Once bears get human food,” says Waller, “it's a whole new ballgame.”

What should I do if I encounter a bear?

First and foremost, stay calm. If you're safe, try to enjoy the sighting. The rule of thumb is you want to stay 100 yards (91 metres) away from the bear. If you happen to find yourself within that distance, back away slowly, talk quietly to the bear and avoid eye contact. Most times, the bear will continue on its way.

A hiker walks down a trail with bear spray in hand.

Photo: Hitting the trails? Bear spray is a hiking essential in Glacier.

In the rare case that a bear is intent on approaching, gather your group, wave your arms and make noise to discourage it from getting closer. Prepare your bear spray and deploy it if necessary. If you don’t have bear spray and contact is imminent, drop to the ground on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck and leave your backpack on for protection. The bear will likely leave you alone once it recognizes you aren’t a threat, but if it doesn’t, fight back.

What should I do after a bear encounter?

For quick, typical bear encounters, you don’t need to do anything. If you happen to see a ranger, let them know about your spotting. They like to hear what the park’s bear population is up to!

If the bear was acting odd, such as cases where it approaches your group, get in touch with park officials. You can send them an email at [email protected] with the date, time and as specific of a location as possible, plus a description of the bear or bears you spotted. Checking the GPS coordinates on your phone and providing them in your message is ideal. You can also pop by a visitor center to report the encounter if you’re staying in the area.

Looking to learn more about bears in Glacier? Visit the National Park Service website for further information on safety, best practices and co-existing with bears within the gates.


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