The Sad Story of a Wild Grizzly-Yellowstone’s Dunraven Sow
“Female Grizzly with four cubs observed near Dunraven Pass”. It was the summer of 2007 and that was the first I’d ever heard of the bear who came to be known as the Dunraven sow. News of this amazing grizzly family was posted on the internet and even featured on the local news. Since bears with four cubs are a rarity in Yellowstone, photographers and wildlife watchers flocked to the park to get a look at this grizzly and her cubs. At the time, bear researchers were unsure whether the Dunraven sow had given birth to all four cubs or had adopted some. Since they suspected the latter, an investigation was performed to determine if the Dunraven sow was in fact, the mother of all four cubs.
During that summer, the Dunraven sow, was not yet collared and since she had a tendency to forage roadside with no fear of humans, she was known as the “unmarked habituated female”. In 2007, she had two COY (cubs-of-the-year) and the trio was often seen along Dunraven Pass. Through investigation by Yellowstone Bear Management personnel, it was determined that along with her two COY, the Dunraven sow adopted two of the three COY of a 24-year-old radio-collared female grizzly known as #125, who was thought to be her mother. No one was sure how this happened, but it was thought that grizzly #125 and her three cubs had an encounter with a pack of wolves, causing the cubs to scatter. After this event, the Dunraven sow was then spotted with four cubs and grizzly #125 with only one.
During the late summer and fall of 2007, many visitors to Yellowstone had the opportunity to see the Dunraven sow and her four cubs. I lived relatively far from the park at that time so I never did see this extended bear family, but I read all the news and internet reports I could find about them. After we moved to Wyoming in late 2007, I had high hopes of seeing the bears when they emerged from their den the following spring. Sadly, none of the four cubs survived through the winter and were never seen after fall 2007. Over the next few years, the Dunraven sow was still seen frequently along the slopes of Mount Washburn, but she was consistently without cubs. As May 2010 rolled around, I read some early-season internet reports that a female grizzly had surfaced on Dunraven Pass with two COY. Thinking this might be the Dunraven sow with new cubs, I searched the Dunraven Pass area from May to June, without any luck. Finally in late June, I spotted a grizzly with two COY coming down the slopes of Mount Washburn. I drove into a pullout and waited with other wildlife watchers who also hoped to get a better glimpse of the bear family. While talking to the Bear Management personnel on the scene, they confirmed it was the Dunraven sow with a new set of cubs in tow.
For anyone visiting Yellowstone in 2010, a visit to Dunraven Pass during that summer would almost surely get you a sighting of the Dunraven sow and her cubs. Each week after I left work for the weekend, I would head to Dunraven Pass in the early morning with hopes of seeing the three bears, and I was rarely disappointed. As word spread about the bears, the crowds on Dunraven Pass continued to grow as did our fondness for these beautiful bears. Stories spread that these bears were the most expensive bears in the history of Yellowstone due to the number of hours park rangers had to spend managing the bear jams. During the many times I saw this trio, I never saw the Dunraven sow act aggressively towards any visitor, no matter how close she and her cubs were approached. I thought that was pretty amazing considering the sheer number of visitors on Dunraven Pass hoping to get a glimpse of the bear family that summer.
The Dunraven sow and her cubs remained fixtures on the pass until mid-August 2010. At that time, the cow parsnip, biscuitroot and other plants the bears were feasting on began to die, so they eventually left the area in search of alternate forage. The last time I saw them in late August, the trio dined on what was left of the abundant wildflowers at the foot of Mount Washburn. After that last sighting I continued my weekly trips to Mount Washburn to look for the bears, but never saw them there again. In early September, the fast moving Antelope Fire burned southeast of Tower Fall and that hindered any travel to the area for a while. Because of all the smoke and the frequent closures of the pass due to the fire, I finally gave up my search for the Dunraven bears.
In early October of 2010, I read reports that a grizzly sow with two COY had raided chicken coops in the Gardiner, Montana area and observers reported these bears to be the Dunraven sow and her 2 cubs. I remember thinking that it couldn’t be them. Why would the Dunraven sow travel so far from her home range with 2 COY? Was there not enough food for them in her territory? Had they been frightened away from Dunraven Pass by the Antelope Fire? Hundreds of questions entered my mind but I convinced myself that the bears in Gardiner could not be the Dunraven bears. That was until I saw photos on the internet comparing the bear family in Gardiner to the Dunraven bears, and from what I could see, they looked remarkably similar.
With internet rumors running rampant, an official statement issued by Chris Servheen, Grizzly Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ran contrary to the rumors of the bear’s identity. Servheen stated: “Rumors that the bear was from the Dunraven Pass area of Yellowstone have no factual basis”. After raiding two chicken coops in Gardiner, the three bears were captured and taken to the FWP office in Bozeman. While in Bozeman, a health assessment was performed on the bears. The sow was found in fair physical condition, but her two cubs were very thin and there were doubts they would survive the winter. At the same time, stories began circulating that FWP had decided to euthanize the bear family. Once stories of possible euthanasia hit the internet, people concerned for the welfare of the bears began writing and calling MT FWP and other involved parties to voice opposition to their killing.
After a few days, MT FWP issued a press release stating that “based on grizzly management guidelines, the condition of the bear and the nature of the conflict, a joint decision was made by officials from FWP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relocate the three bears. Yellowstone National Park agreed to allow relocation of the group into Yellowstone’s interior”. We all breathed a sigh of relief and waited eagerly for news of their release.
Not long after the press release was issued, the Dunraven sow and her cubs were released in prime grizzly habitat near Arnica Creek in the eastern section of Yellowstone National Park. Prior to the bear’s release, the Dunraven sow was ear-tagged and radio-collared and given a number- #665. Her young cubs were also ear-tagged. I had no hopes of seeing the bear family before the long winter set in, but on October 16, 2010, I saw an ear-tagged, radio-collared grizzly sow with two tagged COY traveling north through Hayden Valley. If I had any doubt in my mind that the bears captured in Gardiner, Montana, were the Dunraven sow and her two cubs, seeing these three put that to rest. This sow and her two small cubs were most assuredly the bears I had watched all summer on Dunraven Pass.
The three bears were not bothered by the crowds that gathered along the roadside to watch them, and they appeared to be on a mission. Not stopping for a moment to forage for food, the bears crossed the Yellowstone River multiple times in their quest to reach Dunraven Pass and their winter den. As I watched them head toward Mount Washburn, I hoped that even with the stress of capture and relocation that these bears would be strong enough to make it through to the following spring.
The bear-free winter months seem to pass slowly for ursophiles like me, but after what seemed like an eternity it was time for bears to begin to emerge from their dens. Once Yellowstone opened for the 2011 summer season, I saw several grizzlies, but my mind was on the Dunraven bears. Finally a ranger friend informed me that the Dunraven sow had been tracked by her radio-collar and had successfully emerged from her den in mid-May, but I was heartbroken to learn that her cubs had not survived the winter.
Sadly, I resumed my trips to Dunraven Pass, to see if I could locate the Dunraven sow. Months went by with no sign of her and even though I was told she was still alive, I was uncertain. In August, I took one of my frequent drives to Mount Washburn. I was always hopeful I might see the Dunraven sow, but this time my only plans were to photograph the abundant wildflowers.
When I parked at one of the pullouts near Mount Washburn, I noticed a few people had gathered, all looking towards one of the adjacent hillsides. I asked what they were looking at and was told there was a grizzly foraging in the flowers. I pulled out my binoculars and found the solitary grizzly, a lonely speck on the highest hillside. My ranger friend was one of the wildlife watchers in the pullout and he was the first to tell me that the bear on the hillside was the Dunraven sow. I was so happy to hear the news that I began to cry. Luckily I didn’t need to explain myself to my friend who was just as happy as I was to see the Dunraven sow again.
She spent a long time on the hill that day, but I was determined to wait it out to see if she would come a bit closer. After a few hours, most of the wildlife watchers left, so it was just me and my binoculars watching a barely visible grizzly across from the summit of Mount Washburn. After a few more hours, she began her slow descent from the hillside. Once she got close, I could see her shiny new radio-collar and matching ear tags and I knew it was the Dunraven sow. Even though we were in high summer, her reddish fur was incredibly thick and as always, she looked beautiful. After foraging for most of the day in the hot summer sun, she took a short nap in a meadow of wildflowers where I was finally rewarded with an opportunity to photograph this incredible bear who had touched so many hearts.
I saw the Dunraven sow one last time in 2011. It was early October and she was again foraging near Mount Washburn. She looked very healthy and I couldn’t help but hope that she might have cubs in 2012. As it happened, she did have cubs that year, but nobody saw them. In May of 2012, this remarkable bear was killed by another grizzly while protecting her two new cubs-of-the-year. The tiny cubs died alongside their mother. I didn’t find this out until 2013, but because I didn’t see the Dunraven sow in 2012, I knew in my heart that she was gone. As a wildlife photographer, I often become very attached to my subjects, especially those I see often. To find out one of my favorites has died is always heartbreaking, but to know they died a violent death is particularly difficult. I still mourn the loss of the Dunraven sow each time I drive over Dunraven Pass and although I remain saddened by her death, I will continue to cherish the memories of this amazing bear who will always hold a special place in my heart.
Update on the Dunraven Sow-January 14, 2014:
When I originally published this blog post, “The Sad Story of a Wild Grizzly-Yellowstone’s Dunraven Sow”, on December 18, 2013, I believed that the Dunraven sow had perished in 2012 while defending her cubs. I’d been given this information by a source and had no reason to question it. On January 13, 2014, I received a call from Kerry Gunther of Yellowstone’s Bear Management Office. Mr. Gunther told me that the Dunraven sow had not been killed defending her cubs in 2012. He explained that the information I was given appeared to merge the stories of two different bears. The grizzly sow with cubs that was killed was #662, while the Dunraven sow was #665. In fact, I was told that Yellowstone’s Bear Management personnel did not know the fate of the Dunraven sow. Her collar, which was programmed to come off in 2011, was retrieved fifty yards from the road in the fall of 2011. Since then, there had been no definitive sightings of the Dunraven sow. Mr. Gunther stated that it was possible that the Dunraven sow was still out there somewhere, but he really didn’t know.
To all of you who read my account of the Dunraven sow stating that she was killed, I am truly sorry to have presented this incorrect information and am even more sorry to have upset you in any way. It was foolish of me to publish something so distressing before checking my sources and for that I sincerely apologize. I hope you know that I was as devastated as everyone else when I thought she had died and would never have misrepresented the information about her just to make a more dramatic story. After talking to Mr. Gunther, I have some hope that one day we just may see her again. Until then, I’ll keep driving up Dunraven Pass in search of my old friend.
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