I've come to Jackson Hole because winter is the best time to view wildlife in Grand Teton National Park and I'm incredibly eager to see and photograph the wide variety of furry species that call the massive sanctuary home.
On my first day wandering the park with photographer and naturalist Kurt Johnson of Spring Creek Ranch, he helps me spot 200 bison, 900 elk, 18 moose, more than 50 bighorn sheep, a red fox, five mule deer, 12 coyotes, a golden eagle, four bald eagles, a rough-legged hawk and plenty of more furry friends even as he offers great photography tips. This being winter, all the grizzlies are hibernating, so I know I won't be seeing any, but during lunch at the Rising Sage Café of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Kurt pulls out his Ipad, shows me a bear shot and tells me an amazing story:
"About five years ago, a grizzly bear called 399 came out of hibernation with her three cubs. She wasn't well known -- she was just one of 400 to 500 bears in this ecosystem. But what made her unusual was that she raised these three cubs along the roadside of Grand Teton National Park. Typically grizzly bears don't want to be near roads or people: They prefer the wilderness. But this mother, 399, intentionally brought her cubs to the roadside where people could see and photograph her. She didn't freak out like a typical grizzly bear mom when people inadvertently got between her and her cubs."
"She might have raised her cubs this way to protect them, because one of the greatest risks to a baby bear cub is the male grizzly who will kill cubs, even their own, to bring the female back into estrus. Male grizzlies won't come near the road, so 399 was most likely protecting her cubs."
"It was fantastic to watch these cubs grow up in the Grand Tetons and to see this great mom gain a really strong following. Grizzly bears usually leave their moms after three years to become independent and that's what happened. One of 399's three cubs, accustomed to people, was shot illegally by a hunter carrying out a deer. The hunter claimed he was being attacked, but was found guilty. There's a better love story about 399 and one of her daughters, 610."
"Last May, I was in Grand Tetons National Park on one of the first days after both bears had emerged. 610 came out with two little cubs of her own. Then 399 appeared with three cubs, her first litter since the original one. It was a grizzly bear party, and thousands of people were able to see these two bears and their cubs in the wild all summer. 610 was just as comfortable watching cars and people go by as her mom. 610 would be out by the road and her two cubs would be up in a tree looking down at her."
"In mid-summer, both bears went off the radar; they were doing their normal bear thing of not being seen on a daily basis. And then both moms returned, but, strangely, this time 399 had only two cubs with her, and 610 arrived with three cubs. What we think happened is that 610 recognized her older mom was struggling and had some kind of problem trying to bring up three cubs, so 610 adopted one of her mom's cubs. From mid summer on, that's what we saw. Last time I spotted them was late November. They were trotting through deep deep snow, we figured on their way to their winter den. But then they were seen again in early December. They haven't been seen since."
Kurt grins: "Kind of like a bear soap opera, huh?"
A soap opera, maybe -- but also a great excuse for me to return to Jackson Hole this spring and watch the bear story in person.