Don’t Let Their Brawn Fool You, Wyoming Grizzlies Are Smarter Than Average Bears

Just how smart are Wyoming’s grizzly bears? Don't let their size and aggressiveness fool you, bear experts say. Turns out, they're pretty dang smart.

MH
Mark Heinz

June 27, 20237 min read

There's a reason Grizzly 399 has lived to the ripe age of 27, and counting. She, and other Wyoming grizzlies, are smarter than average bears. (Photo is owned by Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven and may not be reproduced)
There's a reason Grizzly 399 has lived to the ripe age of 27, and counting. She, and other Wyoming grizzlies, are smarter than average bears. (Photo is owned by Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven and may not be reproduced) (Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven)

The sheer brawn of Wyoming’s grizzlies can be awe-inspiring, but it’s primarily their brains that’s kept them atop the food chain, bear experts tell Cowboy State Daily.

“No one can watch a grizzly use a long front claw as a human finger prying a desired object out of a tight crevice without realizing you are watching a thinking, reasoning creature,” said retired federal ecologist Chuck Neal of Cody.

Old And Wise, Like 399

Juvenile grizzlies, like human teenagers, can display poor judgement, bear biologist Chris Servheen of Missoula, Montana, told Cowboy State Daily.

Bears that reach old age get there by exercising good judgment and making sound choices, added Servheen, who was the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years prior to his retirement in 2016.

“The sub-adult bears, they’re decision-making skills just aren’t that good,” he said. “The sub-adult males in particular tend to range, just go out for a while — kind of like a teenager who is handed the car keys and told, ‘be home at midnight’.”

But old bears are wise bears. And Wyoming’s favorite bruin, Grizzly 399 of Teton Park, is a great example of that, Servheen said.

At 27, she’s of an advanced age for her species. When she emerged with a new cub this spring, she became one of the oldest grizzly mommas ever.  

“She’s probably the best example of a bear that has managed to get through life close to humans,” he said. “She knows how the ‘bear jams’ work, how people will behave during those events and how close she can get and still be safe.”

And Grizzly 399 doesn’t take her cubs near roads and cause ‘bear jams’ just for kicks, Servheen added. Over time, she’s learned that large boars (male grizzlies) that might try to kill her cubs generally avoid crowded areas.

Book Smarts Vs. Street Smarts

Bears in general, and grizzlies in particular, are at the high end of the critter intelligence scale, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily. It’s their adaptability that sets them apart.

“Grizzly bears and all ursids (bear species) are, and have always been, considered intelligent, but only more recently have more quantified cognitive tests been conducted,” he said.

“Ironically one could argue it’s an age-old question of book smarts versus street/field smarts, as it is more than obvious the adaptability and intelligence of bears having been found in a multitude of environments and ecosystems globally, which is a basal testament to intelligence and adaptation,” Thompson added.

Tests on captive grizzlies have demonstrated “problem solving and learning abilities,”  Thompson said.

Grizzlies have large brains relative to their body size, which is another good indicator of their intelligence, he said. And mother grizzlies are known to teach their young where the best food sources are and other survival tricks.

In the wild, “I think any of us that deal directly with bears have witnessed their ability to navigate the landscape and utilize seasonal foods based on abundance,” he added.

Some grizzlies have learned to take to the high alpine areas, where they can feast upon protein-rich cutworm moths, he said.

“They're not being handed an instruction manual and directions to the cafeteria, these innate abilities are instilled upon the offspring from the maternal female, as well as things learned through time coupled with instinct,” Thompson said.

Grizzly standing up 10 3 22

Mountain Climber

Neal recalled watching a large male grizzly going to great lengths to find new places to munch on moths in the high country.

“I think that the most dramatic example that I can give you of a grizzly using both brains and brawn took place in the high Absarokas,” Neal said. “High in the alpine moth fields above timber line, a bear wanted to leave the very steep talus slopes and chose as his route — an almost sheer cliff — to reach the crest of the mountain.

“The cliff would have been a challenge to a bighorn (sheep), but the bear studied the cliff and started to climb as a human would hand over hand, ‘paw over paw,’” Neal added. “When the cliff became too precipitous, he would stop and work his way over to a better route. In this manner making several corrections of his way each time the cliff would become too sheer he made his way up and over the crest of the 12,000-foot peak. There is no doubt of this bear being a thinking, reasoning as well as a daring animal.”

The More Serious Bear Species Is Smarter

Between black bears and grizzlies, grizzlies are smarter, Neal said.

“Both the grizzly and the black bear are intelligent animals, but the grizzly is the more intelligent. To understand the basic behavior of the two species, one must remember that the grizzly is a serious animal spending his life in a serious way. The black bear is a more happy-go-lucky, carefree bear,” he said.

“Understanding this basic behavior will go a long way toward understanding the reputation of the grizzly. This serious attitude toward life reflects a greater intelligence in and of itself and explains why the grizzly demands to be treated with respect which most humans are not inclined to give to a ‘wild animal,’” Neal added.

A Smart Bear Knows His Place

Grizzlies have incredible memories, Servheen said. That enables them to keep track to the best food sources, as well as places to avoid, across their vast ranges.

“They never seem to forget anything,” he said.

So, an older bear such as Grizzly 399 can pass a lot down to her offspring, Servheen added.

“Because they’re so long-lived, they have an incredible amount of information by the time they get to the end of their lives,” he said.

Grizzlies are also keenly aware of their social status and know to avoid bigger, meaner bears, particularly when it comes to food stashes, Servheen said.

“If a sub-adult male finds a big game carcass, boy that’s a great find. But it’s also nerve wracking. He knows that anything that comes out to that carcass could potentially hurt him,” he said. “Everything is calculated. It’s all dependent upon their place in the social structure.”

Humans figure into those calculations, Servheen said.

“Every bear alive today is ware of humans and that we’re dangerous,” he said.

Wise Bears, Foolish People

While grizzly intelligence shouldn’t be underestimated, human intelligence might sometimes be overestimated, Neal said.

“The grizzly does not engage in ‘critical thinking,’ but his evolutionary history never required it,” Neal said. “Most humans, frankly, are not capable of ‘critical thinking’ themselves for that matter. The grizzly may well have a superior memory to most humans.”

Intelligence can be passed down through generations of grizzlies, Thompson said.

“Just like human beings, I would also expect some bears to be more intelligent than others, as with natural selection, these bears are usually the ones that pass on their genes for the future.” he said. “Not sure the same can be said for humankind.”

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter