Originally Posted September 2020; Revised and Migrated April 2021
Travel date July 2020
After 25+ unsuccessful hours looking for wolf, grizzly and black bear in Yellowstone National Park, we decided we couldn’t leave without seeing some animals. We took the matter into our own hands and made a visit to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in the town of West Yellowstone.
Due to COVID, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center was restricting entrance to 25 visitors every half hour. We didn’t prebook admission because we used our AZA reciprocal membership and had to redeem in person. As such, we had to wait an hour before our assigned entry time so we wandered around downtown West Yellowstone.
Visiting the Town of West Yellowstone
West Yellowstone is a tourist-centric town with several ice cream shops and even more souvenir shops. Everyone was wearing masks both inside and outside the shops due to a recent mask mandate from the Montana governor.
What is a huckleberry?
For an afternoon treat, we tried the local Huckleberry ice cream after seeing numerous signs advertising the famous ‘Huckleberry Ice Cream’.
Huckleberries only grow in subalpine forests in the Northwest United States and a few Canadian provinces. Huckleberry-themed food and goods are a big tourism business in West Yellowstone. Shops have huckleberry vodka, huckleberry syrup, huckleberry jam, huckleberry honey, huckleberry chocolate bars, and on and on.
I didn’t know what to expect and decided huckleberry was okay. It tasted a lot like blueberry to me but I’ve since heard it described as a cranberry/blueberry combo. In hindsight, I agree it is a little tangy and tart like cranberry but sweeter like a blueberry. I didn’t love it enough to buy any of the numerous huckleberry products but enjoyed the ice cream.
Is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center a zoo?
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is a member of the American Zoological Association so technically it is a zoo. But they describe themselves as a non-profit wildlife center and educational facility. On our visit, it seemed different from other zoo experiences both in its small size and the type of animals on display.
Honestly, we have a love-hate relationship with zoos and similar types of destinations that earn revenue from captive animals. We love to see the animals and learn more about them. On the other hand, we hate contributing to animals being held captive rather than living in the wild. Maybe I am just trying to justify my visit but the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone seemed different than most zoos.
Where does the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery get their animals?
The bears were only on display for an hour at a time and the display habitat was filled with treats to keep them entertained. Each resident bear had a story posted in front of the enclosure. All were either abandoned youth or nuisance bears that had become too comfortable around humans. They would have been killed if they hadn’t been taken by the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
The wolves were born into captive-born litters and cannot be returned to the wild. Injuries prevented the raptors from being released. The stories were convincing and I believe the animals are safest at the center.
How much time do I need to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center?
We spent an hour exploring the center including reading most of the posted educational materials and spending about 20 minutes watching the grizzly bears forage. I wouldn’t plan on spending more than two hours at the center because it is quite small. But if you are staying nearby and enjoyed your visit, admission tickets are valid for two consecutive days. I could envision families with young kids visiting the bears two days in a row. We were staying about half an hour away and were content with a single visit.
How much is admission?
Admission to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is $15 for adults with discounts available for seniors, children, and groups of more than 15. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days.
Admission for a family of four is $50 which I think is a bit pricey for an hour of entertainment. Unless you want to support a non-profit zoo and see a grizzly and wolf up close on your Yellowstone visit, I am not sure I would recommend paying full price.
We got a 50% discount on admission by showing our membership card from a partner AZA organization. If traveling with children or adults who enjoy museums and zoos, a membership at an AZA and ASTC organization is a great budget-saving option. We donate less than $60 annually to the Western North Carolina Nature Center and get free and discounted admission to facilities all over the United States.
Why visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center?
- Observe animals up close
- Learn more about bear safety & how to coexist
- Guaranteed grizzly and wolf sighting near Yellowstone
Observe Animals Up Close
We spent time watching each of the animals on display. With the reduced crowds we were able to observe the animals up close.
Our Visit with Coram and Grant at Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
They rotate the bears on display and on our visit we saw Coram and Grant, two young male grizzly bears. They had both become accustomed to finding food in subdivisions and towns. Wildlife officers attempted to relocate them after a daytime stroll through town but they continued coming to dog food left outside, dirty grills, and open trash cans for scraps rather than foraging in the wild. Coram’s act of freedom was to take groceries from the bed of a pickup truck parked in a subdivision driveway. Afterward, he came to live at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center as an alternative to being euthanized.
What do the bears do?
For the most part, the grizzly bears at the center spend their days foraging. The staff hide food around the enclosure to keep the bears entertained and engaged. We saw the bears flipping boulders and logs for the treats stashed underneath.
The most entertaining part was watching a bear tear down a small tree to retrieve the treat hanging from an upper branch. The keepers were probably not entertained when they had to replant the tree.
Bears commonly destroy garbage bins, dumpsters, and coolers to retrieve the food inside. The center had a display with some of the shredded products as a reminder to properly secure food when in nature.
One of the interesting responsibilities of the grizzly bear at the center is to perform product tests. Manufacturers often provide new containers to the center for testing. If a bear cannot retrieve food from the container within 60 minutes the product earns the IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) bear-resistant certification.
Do they have other types of animals?
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone has more than just bear residents. Also continuously on display were river otters, wolves, a few bald eagles, rough tail hawks, barred owls, and ground squirrels.
The wolves were lounging and napping during our visit but there were several cute pups.
Learn More about Bear Safety and How to Coexist
The main building at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is a small but comprehensive museum primarily about bears. In addition to scientific information and the history of the bear species, there were educational displays about bear safety.
Outrun a Grizzly?
Seeing how fast Coram and Grant could run was terrifying. Grizzlies are the fastest bear species and can reach 35 mph. The fastest human has only reached 27.5 mph. You cannot outrun a grizzly. Do not try to outrun a bear.
When hiking or camping if you encounter a bear, avoid them if possible and retreat quietly. If they have noticed you, make yourself known by speaking which will likely scare the bear away. If the bear doesn’t retreat, slowly back away from the area without turning your back. Bear spray should only be used if the bear is approaching aggressively or charging.
How to Coexist
The best way to coexist with bears is to avoid them. Educational displays included best practices to avoid bear encounters. Some of the highlights to avoid a bear encounter is to store food and anything smelly (cosmetics) in a bear-safe container and don’t sleep in the same clothes you cooked in because food smells can linger and attract the bear.
The whole center was fairly small and the grizzly enclosure was the crowd favorite.
Are there bears in West Yellowstone?
Yes, there are bears in Yellowstone National Park. However, West Yellowstone is quite busy with tourists, and it is difficult to spot a bear or wolf in this area of the park. The less traveled Lamar Valley at dawn or dusk is the best option for animal sightings but requires hours of driving from West Yellowstone.
Guaranteed Grizzly and Wolf Sighting near Yellowstone
A visit to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is a great way to ensure guaranteed grizzly and wolf sightings on your next Yellowstone trip. The small nature center also includes river otters, ground squirrels, and raptor exhibits. In an hour or two, meet some of the impressive residents up close and learn how we can safely coexist in bear country.