Daryl L. Hunter's Photo Portfolio and Gallery
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Bearly Believable
Text and photography by Daryl L. Hunter
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In the Spring of 2020, just like the sprouting of spring wildflowers  venerable old Grizzly 399 again emerged from her winter lair to forage in the valley of Jackson Hole where she is often spotted digging for ground squirrels, wild onion, Yampa root, and Indian potato around Grand Teton Park; remarkably  though, this year  at twenty-four years she had  quadruplets trailing at her heels; her legendary sage grows. 

Grizzly 399, wildflowers
The Queen of the Tetons

Tiny bundles of fur, shy and trepidatious upon arrival at the grizzly/human interface within days they got with the program of cub folic and exuberant antics to the delight of visitors, fans, advocates photographers, reporters, movie makers; oh, and me.

Nine, years ago I was amazed when she showed up with triplets because of her age of seventeen. The average lifespan for a female grizzly is twenty-six years old; if all goes well and all run the  gauntlet of survival obstacles.

She is often seen from the roads of Grand Teton National Park where we photographers and wildlife watchers of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone have become amateur cognitive ethnologists and theorists have concluded that #399’s predilection for frequenting areas rife with humans may be purposeful. Our ethological-projection is merely guesswork by amateurs, but we surmise that #399 has determined that as annoying as we humans are, we are not dangerous. Conversely male grizzlies are the greatest threat to bear cubs. Male bears kill cubs to expedite breeding because female bears won’t come into heat as long as they are nursing cubs. Male grizzlies steer clear of human congestion; therefore congested national park habitat may be safer for sows with cubs than deep wilderness habitat.  Because of the high mortality rate of cubs and exponentially so with larger cub-crops the likelihood of her making it to her winter den with a complete batch of cubs was very slim. 

Grizzly 399 and quadruplets
Family portrait time.

#399 has been an amazingly prolific grizzly having produced a likely twenty cubs and they keep on coming.  An average birth two cubs; however, before the quads #399 produced 3-sets of triplets. After every cub-crop we always wonder whether she is too old to emerge with new cubs the following spring, she has been surprising us with more cubs every time we wonder this. Today it seems grizzlies have opted to leave menopause to humans. Quadruplets aren't only just unusual for this bear; this is only the eleventh crop of quads since they started counting such things in the Greater Yellowstone Eco-system in 1970.

Constantly vigilant the queen of the Tetons kept an eye on this impossible brood as they mimicked their mom in forage, roughhoused, had tugs of war with valuable sticks,  played chicken with the road, and seemed to be competing in a cuteness contest for the ever-present crowds that couldn’t get enough of them; her task was huge but handled it with the aplomb.

A single grizzly 399 cub, wilderness of sage
Hide and seek in the sage; you think it is hard to find a child hiding in a cloths rack at a department store.

Photographing grizzlies is one of my biggest thrills since I am now too old to ski down a double black diamond slope, much to the peril of the rest of my photographic checklist. Retrospectively I often self-flagellated myself for driving past beautiful sunrises and gorgeous scenery in the hopes of getting to a grizzly hot spot where a grizzly may not show up at all.   The anticipation of the thrill of finding these amazing predators especially #399 causes me to jettison all photographic pragmatism if the hopes of capturing that perfect grizzly moment.  When she showed up with quadruplets, I quadrupled my effort to photograph the complete crew before one or two were picked off by amorous male grizzly, a pack of wolves or hit by a speeding car.

Hi everyone

I had felt it quite amazing that previously I had seen and photographed two of the eleven quads which had me feeling quite lucky; I was the only person, in the know who witnessed the second batch, but biologists upon hearing through the grapevine of my encounter took a plane up; found then confirmed the sighting. Achieving a third set now has me fearful of risking lightening photography as luck can be bad as well as good.

Before #399 showed up in Grand Teton Park in 2006 grizzles were rarely seen and it was a lucky day even in  Yellowstone if you got to see one as well; they were rare because of the population crash of 1970 put them on the endangered species list.  How things have changed, #399 is an ambassador for the grizzlies; whoever watches #399 foraging in a meadow with cubs in tow, often become advocates for this rare species. The Yellowstone grizzly may be removed from the endangered species list soon and Grizzly #399 has certainly been doing her part to make it so.

Five grizzly bears
Here they come

There had been many worrisome moments over the summer, concerned fans from all over the world kept watch on social media for every new tidbit of information and every cool photo in suspense and worry for the well-being of this Ursus Arctos clan. So many things can go wrong with a brood of four. Three-ninety-nine lost a lot of weight over the summer from the nursing of four, caution kept her out of the Teton Wilderness region of her range we suspect for fear of the male grizzlies; consequently, we saw them foraging in berry patches for days where previously she was spending ours as she strolled to others beyond.

Soon there was a paucity of food and alarming tens of thousands across social media land as she ventured into the rural agricultural area south of Jackson where she spent a risky month rubbing shoulders with cows, horses, beehives, and the rural-residential residents; the killing of a cow would have meant she would could have been destroyed for breaking the rules of the wilderness/;civilization interface.  A sow with three cubs in this area was tranquilized to be moved here in 1994 and one of those cub’s nose landed in two inches of water and it drowned.

The Grand Tetons, a grizzlies world.
The Grand Tetons, a grizzlies world.

Likely because of her very vocal tens of thousands of advocates Wyoming Game and Fish and the Federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service left her be despite them dining on a domestic bee colony, a backyard compost pile and was a regular at a horse grain feeder that a thoughtless resident wouldn’t remove to keep the bears safe. Miraculously they made it back to the park alive and un-trapped.

The autumn elk hunt was a Godsend for this family who had been surviving on a paucity of  required calories to give them the fat the needed to survive the hibernation of winter. After a month of dining on elk that had been weakened by poor shot hunters and gut piles left behind, all five bear bellies appeared to happily sag like water balloons; they might just make it after all!

399 and crew foraged longer into winter than seems logical, but the longer she could forage while attaining a net calorie gain, the shorter time she would be in the den with four cubs building a calorie deficit.

On New Years Day 2021 this grizzly family trudged through deep snow into the Teton Wilderness where she keeps her winter den. 

grizzly 399's sojourn to the den through deep snow
The sojourn to the den

Quadruplets is an amazing capstone for an remarkable grizzlie's prolific life. Countless followers are praying they all have enough fat so all five bears emerge from the den in the spring.

Bearly Believable

Grizzly 399 through the years, click the slideshow to see larger

 

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