“Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery.” – Lois Crisler
On Easter morning, April 17, 2022, I woke up to photos of 399 and her cubs coming out of hibernation from my wildlife photography friends in the Tetons. We had plans that day and I had a busy week ahead of me, but around 8 p.m. that night, I decided that I had to go try and find her and the cubs – immediately. I wanted to get there before the crowds showed up so that I had a chance to see her with less people around and while she still had all four cubs with her. I packed up my car and left less than twelve hours later to try and capture this incredible family in the early spring season. She will soon leave her cubs to start their lives on their own, and photo opportunities will be gone forever. I had only seen the family twice before and not from a distance that I could capture any decent images.
Grizzly bears are my favorite animal and my first choice for photography on any given day. They have also been my most frustrating aspect of photography as capturing them is never easy, and I feel like I am often five minutes late to every opportunity. It is also difficult because I live eight hours from the nearest grizzlies and I have another job in addition to photography so I can only travel to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem about four times a year. I worked so hard to capture this moment and finally, on this day, it paid off. I have been following this well-known grizzly bear for over a decade. I have seen her over the years, but only as a hump in thick foliage or a rump up on a mountainside.
When she came out of hibernation two years ago with a litter of quadruplets, I was determined to capture this majestic bear with her family. I started trying the summer they were born. Two years later, after six trips to Grand Teton National Park, lodging and camping costs, over 6,500 miles on my car – it all came together for about three minutes with famous grizzly sow #399 and her four adult cubs. The moment happened so fast as they appeared out of the trees, heading straight for the few of us that had parked in a small lot where someone had told us she might be headed. It was cloudy, 7:20 p.m. and the light wasn’t great. I only had time to get out of the car and grab my camera with the 400mm/f2.8 heavy lens to take the shot. There was no time for a tripod and the shot is a little softer than I would have liked, but I captured this moment (cover image) that will be burned in my memory for the rest of my life. It may forever be my most magical and favorite photography experience.
399 with three of her four cubs, there is one that always goes his own way…
The bears came toward us and then turned slightly and continued on into the aspen trees. We had a few more minutes with them as the cubs played in the cover of the trees. One of the cubs was running around with a giant branch in its mouth while two other cubs chased it and they made the most adorable grizzly cub sounds ever as they played. It was difficult to get a clean shot, so I put my camera down and just enjoyed watching this family as they played together. It was a dream come true and an absolute labor of love to capture these photos. It made up for the two times I saw them from a distance, had other photographers show me their shots, and sat in my car and cried because I wanted this experience so badly. It may sound crazy to care so much about a certain photo you want to capture – the truth is that the photo is only the outcome that you get to keep forever. The experience of witnessing such an incredible scene in nature and having the memories of the sights, sounds and smells of the event are what make up the full experience for me. Even if I did not have a camera, I would choose to sit anywhere in nature where I could watch these bears.
By the time she took the cubs through the trees and onto one of the park roads, more cars showed up and people were blocking the bears in and getting dangerously close to the bears (as you can see in a photo below). I will not photograph bears when this human behavior is happening, as I want no part of it. I left the scene as crowds started to arrive and took one shot of the mayhem from a safe distance. This behavior puts all bears at risk because if they were to harm a human that walked up to them, the bear would be the one pay for it…
and there he is, at the back of the family
You can see in the photos that two of the four cubs are collared. They were collared in the fall of 2021 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) to monitor their whereabouts as the family of bears started getting into beehives, livestock feed and even some trash around the Jackson Hole area when they left the park and headed south after their first year. It is an incredibly difficult task for this mother bear to keep herself and four growing cubs fed throughout the seasons, both before and after hibernation. Fortunately for this family, Grizzly 399 has become an ambassador for the park and so well-known that wildlife agencies must do their best to keep them safe. While grizzly bears are on the Endangered Species List under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the lower 48 states, there are many ranchers and hunters in Wyoming who would prefer to see them gone. These wild animals don’t have a voice, and we need to be their voice. It is imperative that the park and wildlife regulatory agencies work to protect these bears, and her famous status after 26 years in the park is helping that happen. As the cubs venture out on their own, we as wildlife photographers, play a key role in voicing our concern, creating and signing petitions and writing representatives to do all we can to protect these cubs we have come to love. We will continue to be their voice. Three years ago, I spent two days photographing 399’s daughter (610) with her two cubs. When they were left by mom at the appropriate age, they traveled south into the Jackson area over the following months and both bears were euthanized for finding trash,bird seed, compost, etc. They showed no signs of aggression and didn’t do anything wrong. Humans need to take more responsibility living in grizzly country. I am praying this doesn’t happen to these four cubs and we will continue to fight for their safety as they venture out on their own. If you ever get to watch grizzly bears, please stay at least 100 yards away from them, have bear spray ready and give them open paths to cross roads and trails.
*the morning after I wrote this blog, I found out 399 kicked the cubs out on the day I wrote this- most likely to protect them because a large boar wouldn’t leave her alone. We will see what happens next as they all go their separate ways.
PLEASE PLEASE DON’T EVER DO THIS – PUTS THE BEARS’ LIVES AS WELL AS YOUR OWN IN DANGER
Photo from my friend Daniel Lindhardt, whose NFT I purchased after I got my own photos so I could have them both on the wall of my She Shed together.