Dietary adjustability of grizzly bears and American black bears in Yellowstone National Park


  • Associate Editor: Scott McCorquodale


Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (U. americanus) are sympatric in much of Yellowstone National Park. Three primary bear foods, cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki), whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) nuts, and elk (Cervus elaphus), have declined in recent years. Because park managers and the public are concerned about the impact created by reductions in these foods, we quantified bear diets to determine how bears living near Yellowstone Lake are adjusting. We estimated diets using: 1) stable isotope and mercury analyses of hair samples collected from captured bears and from hair collection sites established along cutthroat trout spawning streams and 2) visits to recent locations occupied by bears wearing Global Positioning System collars to identify signs of feeding behavior and to collect scats for macroscopic identification of residues. Approximately 45 ± 22% (equation image ± SD) of the assimilated nitrogen consumed by male grizzly bears, 38 ± 20% by female grizzly bears, and 23 ± 7% by male and female black bears came from animal matter. These assimilated dietary proportions for female grizzly bears were the same as 10 years earlier in the Lake area and 30 years earlier in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. However, the proportion of meat in the assimilated diet of male grizzly bears decreased over both time frames. The estimated biomass of cutthroat trout consumed by grizzly bears and black bears declined 70% and 95%, respectively, in the decade between 1997–2000 and 2007–2009. Grizzly bears killed an elk calf every 4.3 ± 2.7 days and black bears every 8.0 ± 4.0 days during June. Elk accounted for 84% of all ungulates consumed by both bear species. Whitebark pine nuts continue to be a primary food source for both grizzly bears and black bears when abundant, but are replaced by false-truffles (Rhizopogon spp.) in the diets of female grizzly bears and black bears when nut crops are minimal. Thus, both grizzly bears and black bears continue to adjust to changing resources, with larger grizzly bears continuing to occupy a more carnivorous niche than the smaller, more herbivorous black bear. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.