Last week, on June 2, I arrived in Grand Teton National Park for my first visit since the park re-opened. I was anxious to see Grizzly 399 who amazingly emerged from hibernation this spring with four new cubs. She is 24 years old, which is getting up there for a wild bear. This is only the third documented time where a grizzly sow birthed four cubs in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Not long after setting up camp, I headed for her usual spring stomping grounds and indeed, there she was.
I spent much of that afternoon watching her in the woods hoping for some good shots. While I did photograph her quite a bit, the cubs were mostly obscured. The next morning (Tuesday) I arrived very early to where she was west of the park road near Leek’s Marina. Again, she was mostly obscured in the woods. I learned that she had killed an elk calf at dawn and I knew she wouldn’t venture far from that food until it was gone. I did get to watch as she nursed all four cubs at once.
Later in the morning she disappeared deeper into the woods. I drove to the marina to see if she might have gone for water. Not finding her there I headed back to the main road. And there she was, right by the road. Here are the four new cubs by a downed log.
Soon she crossed north of the road to the marina and subsequently went east of the main park road into a meadow full of wildflowers. SCORE! Although there was a massive crowd watching her every move, she was completely calm. I tried explaining to a newbie Ranger that she chooses to be near the crowds to keep her youngsters safe from large males not comfortable around people. Suddenly she started “speaking” to the cubs and they crowded next to her for safety. She stood up and looked all around. I would later learn that a large dog had barked in the opposite direction from my vantage point. She had stood to survey the surroundings to make sure a wolf was not threatening.
After assessing the situation was safe, she ventured with the cubs back across the road. I got to watch her each day of the week. On Thursday she began moving south toward Pilgrim Creek. The following morning at dawn she led her cubs over the bridge south of the creek. They are still too small to swim the spring creek current. She ended up in the sage brush along where the open meadow met the woods, west of Emma Matilda Lake. I was somewhat surprised that she might head that direction, where large male grizzlies might be roaming. By Saturday, she had worked her way back to the old dirt road that used to lead part of the way toward Grand View Point. From there she started heading toward the meadow across the road from Jackson Lake Lodge. The crowds moved to anticipate her arrival in that meadow. And sure enough, she popped out into the distant meadow. While we expected her to come towards us, she suddenly disappeared. Some speculated she had gone back into the woods and would head for Oxbow Bend. But then someone came up the road and said she went back north and crossed the road.
The clever old girl had faked us all out. She apparently wanted to drop into the Willow Flats area which might provide productive hunting. Whether she actually planned the double back route or simply decided once she saw us near the lodge, she got where she wanted to be. By Sunday, it was clear she had moved on. But no doubt, after some good eating, she’ll be back.