Are there bears here?
Written by Marcus Heerdt
January 17, 2020

"Are there bears here?"

This is a question we get a lot from visitors to the area…and the answer may be yes and no at the same time.

Both black and grizzly bears once inhabited the Black Hills. Additionally, perhaps one of the most fascinating stories ever involving a bear may have occurred in the Black Hills region. *

In October 1823, Jedediah Smith commanded a party of 12 mountain men into the Black Hills by way of Buffalo Gap. James Clyman, another mountain man in the group, wrote in his journal, “At length we arrived at the foot of the Black Hills which rises in very slight elevation above the common plain…we entered a pleasant undulating pine region cool and refreshing so different from the hot dusty plains we have been so long passing over and here we found hazelnuts and ripe plumbs a luxury not expected…”

Somewhere along the Cheyenne River, a grizzly bear charged at the group and attacked Jedediah Smith. According to James Clyman’s account, “The grizzly did not hesitate a moment but sprang on the captain, taking him by the head…breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly…the bear had taken nearly all his head in his capacious mouth close to his left eye on one side and close to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head…one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim…” After the party killed the bear, Clyman sewed Smith’s scalp back on to his head to the best of his ability. Remarkably, Smith resumed his travels west two weeks later.

In the present day, black bear sightings in the Black Hills have gradually increased, especially in the northern Hills. However, the likelihood of a human coming across a bear in the Black Hills remains extremely low. Most of the black bears which have been listed by the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks as confirmed sightings are most often transient bears on their way to somewhere else like the Bighorn Mountains or northern Minnesota. However, it is always a good idea to be on the safe side. Read more about bear safety here:

Historic and Current Black Bear Range: 

Historic and Current Grizzly Bear Range:

Further Reading:

-A special thank you to the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks for contributing to this article.

-Maps by the North American Bear Center and USGS

*Scholars disagree on the exact location of Jed Smith’s bear encounter – could be South Dakota or Wyoming

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