by John Kerr, ’05, '07, '08
Some say that it's been one of Yellowstone’s most-unusual sightings of a grizzly bear in decades. One particular bear, a sow, attracted a lot of special attention this season with her two dark-eyed cubs as they grazed near the roadsides. As word spread of their appearances, Yellowstone Park Rangers took special care to keep visitors back a safe distance.
Then the sow and her two cubs disappeared.
Suddenly, she reappeared. But now, she had four cubs. Visitors and park bear biologists wondered – was this the same bear? How and why had she adopted the other two? The likely theory was that she had adopted two cubs from a mother of three, and that the two mother bears were related.
In mid-August, we came upon a “jam” of cars and visitors. There, near the roadway, was the mother sow with her four cubs, digging out a huge pit, apparently an anthill. As the sow and the cubs ate, there was no doubt that it was the same bear that we’d seen earlier.
Then she slept. Her own two cubs lay on one side, her two adopted cubs lay on the other. Shutters clicked. A crowd of visitors clustered behind my patrol vehicle at a safe distance and watched quietly.
Then, the sow got up, rolled onto her back, and began nursing all four cubs. Her own two nursed up top. Her two adopted cubs nursed on her lower nipples. As she nursed, the sow put one paw high into the air. It was sighting of a lifetime. After it was over and the bears moved off, rangers and the visitors milled about in awe, still stunned by what we had seen together.
A week or so later, I found a little grizzly bear cub, alone, running beside the roadside. It seemed distraught. I asked the few visitors to please give it space, which they did. I explained that I thought the little bear had become separated from its mother. The cub sniffed the ground, and then disappeared into the woods.
A few minutes later, I came across the sow. She was high on the edge of a roadcut, tearing up rocks to get ants and grubs. Football-sized rocks were raining down on the road. I switched on my flashers and opened up a space so no one would get hurt – or get too close.
Suddenly the lone cub I'd seen down the road appeared in the brush behind the sow and joined the three. It was an incredible moment of reunion that I will never forget. The little lost cub ran up to the sow. I gave several visitors I didn't know "high fives." Several visitors who realized what had just happened shed tears. Shutters whirred. The lost cub and the sow had reunited.
Why four cubs? Why did this particular sow adopt two other cubs in addition to her own? Could a sow feed and raise four cubs? Who was the birth mother? Are the two sows really related? Will the sow and the four cubs den together? Survive the winter? These and other questions are ones that Yellowstone’s bear biologists are now working to answer. Some will be answered. Some will remain mysteries.
Snow is now sifting across Dunraven Pass, which is closed for the winter. No one has seen these bears recently.
In the spring, as winter’s grip loosens on Yellowstone and as bears emerge from their dens, many of us will be watching carefully for a particular sow. And for her two cubs, and for the other two that she adopted, and that we saw her nurse.
No coincidence that this place was once called “Wonderland.”
John Kerr, SCA “wolf ambassador” in Yellowstone National Park in 2005, is now a Yellowstone seasonal bear Ranger.
This is an amazing story and I think John Kerr for writing it and including the astonishing photos. When I was visiting Yellowstone last summer I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with John on his rounds as a seasonal ranger in the Tower District. He is very adept at his work, which is basically bringing common sense to situations where it’s lacking (kids having their pictures taken atop dangerous walls, folks abandoning their cars in the middle of the road in order to join a crowd of elk-peepers, bravado in the presence of large wild animals). John brings humor and the right amount of concern to his dozens of encounters with visitors each day.
He was an SCA Wolf Ambassador intern in the park a couple of years ago, interpreting the successful reintroduction of wolves into the Lamar area. After a long and storied career in Public Television, he was an outstanding and wonderfully atypical SCA. Keep an eye out for him if you’re in the Tower Ranger District next summer.
Mary B. Smith (Roman)
That is great to hear about Grizzlies thriving in the lower U.S. I was able to see them up in Denali, Alaska when I did my internship a few years back. I'd love to visit Yellowstone and see them there too.
Bear vs Wolf
At the end of a month leading high school students with the Conservation Crew program in 2001, we visited Lamar Valley at the north end of the park in hopes of seeing some wolves reported to den there. We were treated to see two wolves get into a short scrap with a Grizzly. It's a memory I'll never forget.
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