The first confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in Yellowstone has been announced by The National Park Service (NPS), as male grizzlies begin to make their way out of hibernation.
The bear was spotted prowling the ground near Grand Prismatic Spring on Saturday, March 7, by biologists tracking wildlife in the park by air.
Most of the bears seen emerging are adult males, which exit their dens in early March. Females with cubs tend to wake up in April and early May. This year's first sighting took place a day earlier than 2019's.
"Now that bears are emerging from winter dens, visitors should be excited for the chance to view and photograph them, but they should also treat bears with respect and caution," bear management biologist Kerry Gunther said in a statement.
"Many visitors think bears are ravenously hungry and more likely to attack people for food after emerging from hibernation, but almost all bear attacks result from surprise encounters when hikers startle bears at close distances and the bears react with defensive aggression."
Gunther advises hikers, skiers and other visitors to travel in groups of three or more people. Guests should also make sure they are carrying bear spray and to create noise, so as to alert any wandering bears to their presence.
The park says visitors should try to avoid hiking at dusk, dawn or at night, make sure they remain alert and keep food, garbage and other items that might attract attention in bear-proof storage boxes.
Anyone who does come into contact with a bear is asked not to run, keep at least 100 yards away and report any sighting to a park ranger as soon as possible.
There were no reports of any human injuries from Yellowstone's grizzlies in 2019 but in order to try to limit the number human and bear interactions, parts of the park will be closed off to members of the public as of March 10, 2020, officials have said.
Yellowstone's grizzlies are covered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), after a federal judge restored protections in September 2018. This makes it illegal to harm, harass or kill the animal other than in instances of defense. The ruling was made after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed protection from the bears in July 2017.
Today, the number of grizzly bears in the U.S. are far below the 50,000 bears that roamed the country in the early nineteenth century. At the same time, the species' distribution in the contiguous U.S. shrank to just 2 percent of its historic range.
However, thanks to the ESA, Yellowstone's bears have bounced back from a low of 136 in 1975 to around 700 in 2016. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, there are thought to be between 1,200 and 1,400 wild grizzly bears across the western U.S. as a whole.