On June 19, 2012, I had the privilege of photographing two grizzly cubs near Taggert Lake in Grand Teton National Park. What made this experience even more meaningful was the story surrounding these cubs and their mother as well as the tragedy that followed.
It began in 2001. A 5-year-old female grizzly, living in the Teton area, was tagged and fitted with a research collar. She was given the number 399, which has evolved into more of a name and a legacy than just a number.
In 2004, 399 was seen with a single cub. However, the cub disappeared and was not seen again. In 2005, 399 was recaptured by researchers and fitted with a new collar as she had shed her old one. In March of 2006, she emerged from her den. This time she had three cubs at her side. This spawned a craze in the Teton area as 399 chose to raise her cubs near the roadside.
One of these cubs was later tagged and given the number 610. In 2011, 610 followed the example set by her mother by raising two of her own cubs along the roads of Grand Teton National Park. That same year 399 had three cubs of her own.
By the time I arrived in 2012, much had already taken place in the lives of these popular bears. 399 had not been seen as frequently as her daughter, 610, and she had not been seen with any of her three cubs. As I drove into Grand Teton National Park, I had the opportunity to photograph 610 as she sat with her cubs in the willows near Moran Junction. What was unique was that there were three cubs. 610 had only given birth to twins. This third cub had been one of 399's cubs and for some reason had joined up with 610. It didn't seem to bother 610 and she had been raising it alongside her own cubs.
It was still unclear what had become of 399's other two cubs. Some believed she had kicked her cubs out a year early. Others speculated that a male grizzly had entered her territory and, in an attempt to mate with 399, had driven the cubs away. The two missing cubs had been spotted near Taggert Lake, one of them bearing scratches that supported the theory of an attack by a male grizzly. In the weeks leading up to my arrival, the two cubs had been primarily on their own. Only recently had they found one another.
As I drove away from Moran Junction on the evening of June 19th, I was grateful for the opportunity I had to photograph 610. This was my last night in the Tetons and as my trip came to an end I assumed that 610 would be the last bear I would see until I returned the following summer. As I neared Taggert Lake I saw a number of cars pulled over, indicating that there was something worth seeing. We pulled our car over to the side of the road and waited for a few minutes. Another observer said that they had seen a bear, but it had already disappeared. We decided to wait several minutes to see if the bear returned. Sure enough, soon we saw a young grizzly climb over a small embankment and begin to forage. About a minute later another bear appeared and it occurred to me that I was viewing the separated cubs of 399. They had become known as "Brownie" and "Ash".
For the next hour I photographed them as they foraged in the brush. Eventually they crossed the road, passing about 15 feet in front of our car, and headed into the trees at the foot of the Tetons. Every time I have seen a grizzly it has been a privilege and this time was no exception. I found myself looking forward to the updates that would follow on these two bears, hoping that their story would reflect that of 610 or 399.
Weeks later I found my first update on the two bears. Sadly, it wasn't the type of update a bear enthusiast looks forward to . "Brownie," the darker colored cub and the one pictured at the end of this entry, had been hit and killed by a car on June 21, 2012, just two days after I had seen it. Upon my most recent visit to Grand Teton National Park, I asked a local photographer if anything had been heard of the other cub, "Ash." He said that it hadn't been seen in a while. No one will ever know what happened to the other cub. Due to its age, it is unlikely that it was able to survive on its own. Had the two bears been able to stay together, they would have stood a chance for survival.
610's cubs, now old enough to be on their own, continue to be seen throughout the Teton area, primarily traversing the same territory as their mother. 610 herself has not been as visible this year, but the locals know the areas she likes to frequent and she has been seen several times. 399, now nearing 17 years of age, emerged from her den this spring with a new set of triplets. I wasn't fortunate enough to see them this summer. As a matter of fact, I nearly struck out on bears in the Tetons. The only bear I saw was one of 610's cubs, now three years old and on its own. It was passing through a field of willows and its appearance was brief. I look forward to my next encounter with these bears and I hope that 399's current set of triplets has a story of success that carries on the legacy of their mother.