Bears Are Still King, Even Though A Grizzly Lost A Fight To A Pack Of Wolves In Yellowstone

When grizzlies and wolves clash, the bears usually come out on top, even though wolves prevailed in one recent brawl in Yellowstone National Park.

Mark Heinz

February 01, 20234 min read

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Even though it wasn’t the case in a tussle in Yellowstone National Park this fall, grizzly bears generally at the top of Wyoming’s wildlife food chain, said a leading wildlife biologist said. 

That includes general dominance over wolves, or at least being left alone by the canines, Wyoming Game and Fish large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily. 

When a pack of 10 wolves successfully ran off a large grizzly this fall in Yellowstone, it was probably an exception rather than the rule, he said. 

Pack Strategy 

“The dominance hierarchy works itself out pretty well in nature with grizzly bears coming out on top, but the strategic pack strategy of wolves does come into play around certain situations especially involving carcasses,” Thompson said. 

It’s suspected a carcass was involved in the clash filmed in October in the Hayden Valley area of Yellowstone. The wolves had apparently claimed a carcass and the grizzly seemed to want it – but the wolves thought otherwise.

In the video, the bear can be seen standing on its hind legs to observe the situation from a distance before dropping to all fours and lumbering in. 

The wolf pack responds by closing in form multiple sides and soon all the critters are involved in a spinning melee that drags on for a few minutes. Then the bear decides it has had enough and lumbers off with the wolves pursuing it in a line before the bruin takes shelter in some timber. 

Bears Learn To Share

Wolves and grizzlies both were once bountiful in Yellowstone and the surrounding wildlands. However, by the 1970s, wolves had long since been wiped out and only a few grizzlies were left scattered around the park. 

Grizzlies were placed under federal protection so they could recover, and in the decades since have rebounded and continued to push their range ever farther across Wyoming and neighboring states. 

The grizzlies had the place mostly to themselves until the mid-1990s, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. 

They, too, have thrived and continued to expand their territory outside of park. 

General Mutual Respect

For the most part, bears and wolves avoid tussles with each other – neither species is too keen on the risk of injury that comes with going tooth-to-claw with the other, Thompson said. 

On the rare occasions that encounters do turn lethal, grizzly cubs are the most likely victims, he said. 

“We have documented a few cub mortalities from wolves, but generally speaking the two species occupy the same areas spatially, but temporally and behaviorally use the landscape differently,” he said.

“Both species will scavenge and happily take an easily obtained meal, but if that means potential wounds associated with usurping a prey animal or carcass it’s generally easier to keep going,” he added. 

Scarcity of food in any territory occupied by both species might rachet up tensions, Thompson said. And although many people might be tempted to see things in terms of a back country version of bar fights, that’s not how nature really works. 

“I would point out that we don’t term these interspecific interactions as ‘conflict’ as they’re both wild animals doing the daily tango that is crucial to the adaptation and evolution of the species,” Thompson said. 

Cats Still Stuck At The Bottom

Meanwhile, mountain lions remain at the bottom of the apex predator heap in Wyoming, steering clear of both grizzlies and wolves.

Although there have been increasing incidents of mountain lions slaying wolves in the Pacific Northwest, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon in the greater Yellowstone region, Thompson said in a previous interview. 

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter