By Meg Sommers
I have to admit, I am a sucker for bear cubs—babies of any sort really—but bear cubs are one of my top favorites. Their playfulness with each other is non-stop, at least until they do quit, and then it’s as if someone just flipped a switch.
While it is not unusual for a grizzly mom to have two cubs in Yellowstone National Park, three cubs is pretty rare, and a huge handful for her. Watching over three cubs is a challenge, as wildlife watchers learned first-hand shortly after this photo was taken.
The mother bear had been seen frequently in the area between Mary Bay and Lake Hotel. In fact, she had a regular route that she took in a big circle between those two locations. If you watched long enough, you began to learn her preferred path and habits.
So it was this morning in May when this foursome was spotted early in the morning heading west from Mary Bay into the trees. There was great speculation as to where they might pop out.
In situations like that, a photographer must make an educated guess, commit to it and move to set up in anticipation of an animal’s movements. You can be wrong, of course, and sometimes way wrong, but you have to try.
On this morning, I arrived too late to see her at Mary Bay, but from the reports from other photographers about where she was last seen and her deliberate pace, my money was on the trailhead just beyond the trees. That was a lucky morning, because she popped out right where I had hoped she would, young ones in tow.
You can see in her body posture and eyes that the mother is wary of her paparazzi, while the young ones vary from timid to cautious to curious. The cubs had very different personalities, and you could tell them apart just from their behavior as they interacted with each other and with mom.
This photo was taken just two days before the family encountered a major catastrophe. In the same general vicinity of Mary Bay, the Mollie’s wolf pack had been very active. In fact, the next day they killed an elk at the west end of the bay and the wolves stayed in the vicinity of the carcass for several days.
The following day, the bear foursome was seen heading back towards Mary Bay, and as darkness closed in, they were close enough for a grizzly to have smelled the elk carcass.
No one knows what really happened during the night, but the next morning, the mother grizzly was seen heading west again. In the morning light, it was clear that she had only one cub with her. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the bears had approached the carcass and been attacked by the Mollie’s pack. Separated from mom, the cubs would have been no match for a group of wolves.
Normally in such a situation, a grizzly mom would have sent the cubs up a tree. (Yes, grizzlies climb trees, but they are not quite as well suited to it as black bears.) And that may be exactly what the mother did. Later that morning, someone spotted one of the cubs, alone in the same group of trees just west of Mary Bay.
I saw the cub when it was utterly alone and crying and trying to cross the road, but unable to find any way through the crowd of people that had gathered. No ranger was present to manage the throng. The cub was so incredibly vulnerable. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen in Yellowstone, and not being able to do anything to change the situation, I could not stand to watch, so we left.
The mother grizzly continued to travel west for the rest of the day before eventually heading east again. On the third day after her altercation with the wolves, mom came back to the area where she had lost the two cubs. The wolves had abandoned the carcass by that time. The lost and lonely cub, incredibly, had managed to find shelter, avoid the road and had somehow survived. After much searching, mother found her cub.
Those two cubs were raised to adulthood by their mother, who became so popular with photographers around the park, she became known as Blaze for her markings. The the cubs were dubbed Raspberry and White Claws. The third cub, which I think had been the most timid of the three, was never seen again.
Meg Sommers is a wildlife and nature photographer who also works as an attorney and part-time judge in Cody, Wyo. She teaches a wildlife photography course in Yellowstone Park for the Yellowstone Association Institute.
How I Got That Shot takes you behind the scenes to learn how a top Yellowstone or Grand Teton photographer captured a terrific image. If you have a great shot you’d like to share, please send it to [email protected]