To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. -Theodore Roosevelt

Grizzlies Scratchin’ the Itch on the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch

For more than four years, one trail camera was aimed at the same tree 24/7. That camera caught just about every awesome thing that wanders along northwest Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. There are wolves and hares, rutting elk and skunks. There are skittish coyotes, and perhaps the craziest of all, there are bears, lots of bears that love one particular tree. 

We don’t know what makes this tree special, but the bears sure seem to think it’s worth a scratch. As you watch the video, pay attention to the date stamp along the bottom. You’ll notice that in late May or early June, bears return like clockwork. The science suggests that the tree isn’t scratching an itch but serving as a signpost for bears in the area, which is handy in the spring mating season. By rubbing on the tree and urinating nearby, these bears communicate with other animals, including other bears. Apparently, it’s a universal behavior that even brown bears in northwest Spain enjoy.

The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch has 33 active wildlife trail cameras set in key locations, and those cameras take thousands of shots every year. The job of sorting those photos falls to Chris Hansen, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Montana and Boone and Crockett Fellow.

We invite you to watch this intimate look at bears doing bear things. You’ll get closer than you ever wanted to be.

Big Bear Behavior Explained

1. Itch and Eat

The heavy front end and wide forelegs of this bear suggest to me that it’s a male. His ears are close together, suggesting he is a young adult. Grizzly bears typically reach sexual maturity and breed between four and seven years of age. He rubs to mark his individual place and time to other bears. By May 21, males are searching for females entering the breeding season. Bears are curious animals, especially younger males, and often investigate trail cameras with their teeth and claws. I’ve had many cameras decorated with perfect bear-tooth holes.

2. Bear Stomp and Squiggle

Bears stomp walk and squiggle their pads into the ground to spread their scent like rubs. They will also stomp and squiggle in the same prints left by previous bears. Over time, a trail of bear prints with undisturbed ground between can be seen. These are called generational trails.

3. Mouthbreather

This bearded bear has a heavy chest, neck and head and wide set ears. He walks swinging his elbows out with Pidgeon-toed feet. These are traits of a mature breeding age male in his prime. He shows signs of scars from fighting with other males for breeding rights. Like this big male does, bears love to have an overhead branch to rub their faces with. This bear has an ear tag telling us that he has been handled by a bear manager for either research or management reasons. This doesn’t always indicate a bear has been involved in human conflict or point to a number of “strikes” by number of tags. Rather, it is an identification marker and in hunted bears, cautions hunters to call before eating as the animal could still have unprocessed drugs for up to 45 days after handling.

4. Hard to Get

The ear-tagged male from the previous video chases a female who does not yet want to breed with him. By June 17, bears are at the peak of their breeding in Montana and will continue into July a bit. Females often breed with several males and can give birth to cubs with unrelated fathers.

5. Polar(ish) Bear

A younger bear in October is searching for food sources to build the fat it will rely on until spring. Maybe the camera looks tasty.

6. Just Go to Bed

A big male bear in November is often searching for ungulate carcasses left by hunters and other predators who key in on areas where deer and elk congregate to breed and over-winter. Bigger bears require more protein intake than smaller bears and stealing a kill requires grit and courage. A big male can put on 100 pounds of fat in November alone. The second bear is an average adult-sized bear, possibly a lone female or younger male sniffing around for the last calories before bed. Notice the date stamp on the video.

7. Spring Fightin’ Weight

A familiar big male returns in June. This bear is slimmed down and likely somewhere close to the lowest body weight he will have all year.

8. Itchin’ Post

Big males on the search for ladies don’t spend a lot of time stationary. This male posts his mark and quickly moves on down the trail.

9. Baby Bear

A cute black bear cub of the year feeding around in a meadow is a good sign that mom is close by. Often, females will put their cubs up a tree so they can feed without risking their cubs being on the ground while she is distracted.

10. Twin Griz and Momma

A chubby female grizzly with two cubs of the year looks healthy and well-prepared for a winter slumber. Cubs keep their soft, fluffy look until they shed their winter coat as yearlings. A yearling will then have the same grizzled-looking hair as an adult bear.

11. A Scratch, a Huff, and a Puff

Another grizzly vigorously scratches its back as it travels through the area. Then, a big male huffs as he cruises through the mountains. Finally, another big male with a split left ear suggests this is the ear-tagged bear from the previous year and still on his familiar home turf. A male grizzly in Montana can live into its late 20s, and several grizzlies have passed the 30-year mark in the wild. .

12. Enjoy Yourself

Many animals will rub into the snow for a bath. This grizzly could be grooming itself, but it could just be playing. Many people have enjoyed watching bears slide down avalanche chutes and frolic in the water, just enjoying life.

13. Save the Last Scratch

This black bear shares the same scent mark post as the grizzly bears do. Bears are their own highest natural mortality source, and as a result, black bears don’t always occupy the same areas as grizzly bears. Where food abundance and attitudes allow, however, black bears will coexist with grizzly bears using the same trails and food sources. This black bear has a smaller butt and thicker nose, suggesting this is a male and he is probably searching for the same late September berry crop as the grizzlies. A big male black bear can have enough confidence in himself to take risks smaller bears of either species cannot.

14. Bad Boy

We don’t really know why this grizzly boar is wearing an ear tag in its left ear, but chances are it’s not for good behavior. Then again, it could be part of a grizzly research project, but it could also because he likes the taste of someone’s bird food, which is why you should always put attractants away when living in bear country. At least for the moment, this guy seems pretty content with staying in the woods.



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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt