by John Kerr, ’05
Some say that it has been one of Yellowstone’s most-unusual sightings of a grizzly bear in decades. Already, visitors to the remote northeast area of Yellowstone see more grizzly and black bears than anywhere else in this first U.S. National Park.
Rangers here clock more hours at roadside "bear jams" than anywhere else in these wild and beautiful 2.23 million acres.
Up on the high road that wraps majestically over Dunraven Pass, visitors often see grizzlies. Here, these former plains-dwellers use their long claws to turn over rocks and hunt for grubs.
One particular bear, a sow, attracted a lot of special attention on Dunraven 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 for several days.
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. We told them that this was no usual sighting.
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. One of the four cubs still remained at large. The fire lookout on the top of Mt. Washburn said that he had seen a lone cub in that area – the direction the bears were now moving.
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, a former SCA “wolf ambassador” in Yellowstone National Park, is now a seasonal bear Ranger there.
Top photo -- Ray Rathmell, Yellowstone Campground Host and Wolf Volunteer.
Middle and Bottom photos -- Ken Herrly, Butte, MT.
Editor's note: these are photos of the mother and cubs in the story.
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