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.

Atop Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone Park, a mother grizzly leads her two cubs through a meadow filled with shooting stars and alpine forget-me-nots. Although born in the same litter, these cubs may be only half-siblings since the female grizzly can mate with several different males during breeding season, producing cubs with different fathers. (Sandy Sisti)

The Dunraven sow and her two cubs make their way through a meadow near Mount Washburn during July 2010.

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.

Yellowstone visitors get much to close to the Dunraven Sow and her two cubs near Chittendon Road. (Sandy Sisti)

Yellowstone visitors get too close to the Dunraven sow and her two cubs during the summer of 2010.

 

 (Sandy Sisti)

Large crowds gather near Mount Washburn to catch a glimpse of the Dunraven bears.

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.

Although still nursing, this young grizzly cub also enjoys the abundant vegetation of the summer months in Yellowstone Park. Some favorites include; biscuitroot, cow parsnip, clover, and horsetail. (Sandy Sisti)

One of the Dunraven sow’s two cubs, enjoys what’s left of the August vegetation on the slopes of Mount Washburn.

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.

 (Sandy Sisti)

One of the Dunraven sow’s two cubs in Hayden Valley on October 16, 2010.

 (Sandy Sisti)

The Dunraven sow and her two cubs travel through Hayden Valley on their way to 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.

 (Sandy Sisti)

The sow and her two cubs cross the Yellowstone River.

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.

Record snowfall combined with dousing spring rains provided the perfect conditions for this incredible display of summer wildflowers on Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone Park. (Sandy Sisti)

Wildflowers cover the hillside along Yellowstone’s Dunraven Pass.

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.

A grizzly sow enjoys the lush summer vegetation on Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone Park. As summer progresses through the dog days of August, grizzlies will leave these mountain meadows to search for army cutworm moths in the boulder fields of the alpine tundra. (Sandy Sisti)

The Dunraven sow relaxes in a wildflower meadow near Mount Washburn in August 2011.

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.

 (Sandy Sisti)

Until we meet again…..

 

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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  • Stan A Angel

    Wonderful story Sandy, you drew me right into the world you wanted to convey, the images accentuate your articulate descriptions. Your sadness at the loss yet the indomitable nature of the wilderness you document give insight into that untamed land you love so much. You poetically paint the landscape you live in through the medium of your compassion and photography, My heart and sympathy go out to you. well done.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Stan. I’m so happy you thought this was a fitting tribute for this bear who meant so much to me.

  • Judy

    Thank you…….

    • sandysisti

      Thank you Judy. She was a very special bear.

  • Jean Bjerke

    Sandy these images are marvelous, and thank you for the detailed story of watching them over several years. Your photography is amazing, and I love your passion for the bears.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much Jean. She was very special to me and I wanted to write her a fitting tribute. I think of her often and it always brings a tear to my eye. She is missed.

  • Lisa

    Thank you for sharing this story with us. You have honored her with a lovely tribute and beautiful pictures. It completely breaks my heart to hear of her ending that way, and I’ve still got tears running down my face. I can only imagine the sense of loss you feel. Keep up the good work.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much, Lisa. She was very special to me and to so many others who had the pleasure of seeing her over the years. I’m glad I could bring her to you with my writing and photos. She was an amazing bear.

  • Kelly Branson

    Thank you Sandy for your hard work and photo’s. Your story touched me and brought tears to my eyes. Your stories and photo’s always brighten my day. Even the sad ones. I hope you know how many lives you touch and the joy, education, and love you bring to our lives. I am sorry for the loss of the Dunraven sow. She seemed to be a one in a million type bear. Hopefully another will come along to keep people interested. I wish one of her cubs could have made it to carry on her legacy. Again thank you.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much, Kelly. She was a very special bear and I’m so happy you enjoyed reading about her life, even though it was cut much too short. She will be missed.

  • Bernie Scates

    Thank you very much Sandy for sharing the life of Grizzly #655 & her cub’s in depth. My tribute to her a while back only covered the surface of this beautiful Grizzly of Dunraven Pass & Mt. Washburn. I’am sure the thousand’s of people that enjoyed watching her & her cub’s grazing, playing, and running around in the beautiful wildflower’s appreciate reliving her life. We must have been standing next to each other for your last photo, “Until we meet again” because I have the very same photo. This is your chance to put this in at least a paper book !!!!

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much, Bernie. I really enjoyed the tribute you wrote to her a while back. It was lovely. I’ve been trying to write this for so long, but was having so much trouble. I think it was because I was still so saddened by her death. She really touched me and I know she touched many others who had the opportunity to watch her over the years. For me, Dunraven Pass is still not the same without her there. I met a lot of wonderful people that year she had the cubs, including, Diana. It’s funny that we never met when we were standing right next to each other in 2010, but I’m so glad we finally met this year. Best to you, Bernie.

      • Bernie Scates

        I don’t know why we didn’t meet because I was with Diana most of the time there….

        • sandysisti

          I think I probably was just ignoring you :-) Seriously though, I remember Diana and her dogs. And I remember a gal that Diana was always with named, Laura Baldwin. Do you remember her? I’m glad we finally got to meet but I don’t know why it took so long!

          • Bernie Scates

            I think I was too wrapped up in the bear’s to see who was around me, there was quite a few of us up there & yes I knew all of them.– Thank you again for getting your story to Sherri, she was devoted to, as she called her -“Mrs. Dunraven”

          • sandysisti

            You’re so welcome, Bernie. Sherri sounded really nice and told me how fond she was of her and that she called her Mrs. Dunraven. I like that so much more than the Dunraven sow. Such a beautiful bear.

  • Bill Zager

    Thank you for the story and the photos, Sandy. I was among the thousands who watched this bear. I even used a photo of her and two cubs on my Facebook page for a while. Far from being saddened to hear of her passing, I am heartened that she died a wild death in our wild land, and not at the muzzle of some sniveling hunter or in some disgraceful “management action.” Long live the Queen of Dunraven in our hearts and minds!

    • sandysisti

      Thank you, Bill. I’m so glad that you had the opportunity to see this remarkable bear before her passing. Like you, I’m glad she died a natural death instead of one at the hands of a trophy hunter, but I still wish that she hadn’t been taken from us so soon. We will always have our memories, though. Long live the Queen of Dunraven!

  • Renée Duin-de Leeuwe

    It was a heartbreaking story to read Sandy, about the Dunraven sow and her cubs…..so sad. Now the picture of the resting bear between the flowers, has a whole different meaning…..I will always remember the story you’ve wrote so wonderfull, about her. Thank you so much….

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much, Renee. She was a very special bear and will be missed by me and by the many others who had the opportunity to spend time with her over the years. I know nature can be very cruel and it is a tough place for bears out there, but I still wish she wasn’t taken from us so soon.

  • Susan Wilkinson

    This is such a heart-felt and loving tribute. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you to have spent so many years admiring, watching and documenting her life, to have to say good-bye. I tear up after watching an hour long wildlife documentary on the t.v. Your images truly reflect just how much you cared for her. She and her cubs were so beautiful.

    Mother Nature can be both cruel and awe-inspiring at the same time. She draws us in with her beauty. We are captivated, mesmerized, and regenerated after spending time in her presence. As wildlife photographers, our work and our memories would be mere snapshots without all the majesty and grandeur she provides. One thing is for sure, Mother Nature commands our respect, and at times, she demands it!

    Thank you for sharing this very special part of your life. Perhaps, there will be another bear that captures your heart this year and if so, I look forward to seeing and hearing all about it.

    Best wishes~

    Susan Wilkinson

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much for your heartfelt comments, Susan. She really was very special to me and will always be remembered with love.

  • Stephanie Sprouse

    Thank you Sandy what a beautiful story and so very sad. Did the Park Rangers find her and her cubs? :(

    • sandysisti

      Thank you Stephanie. Because she was radio-collared, the rangers picked up a mortality signal after she was killed and were able to find her and her cubs. They don’t know exactly what happened, but from the looks at the scene it was clear to them that she was attacked and killed by another bear, most likely an aggressive male. Such a sad way to end her life, but at least she died a natural death instead of at the hands of a trophy hunter. She died doing what she did best, being a good mom.

  • Don Peterson

    Thank you, Sandy, for sharing this sad but beautiful story. I have rarely seen a grizzly bear in the wild and then only from a vast distance. Back in 2010 we saw a sow followed by two scampering cubs a few hundred yards away but still it was an exciting experience.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you, Don. It is always exciting to see grizzly bears, no matter what the distance. There’s nothing quite like it.

  • 2ChocLabs-PA

    So, so sad. Feel your pain and wish the outcome was more positive.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you so much for your kindness, 2ChocLabs. She was a very special bear and I do wish she was still with us.

  • Juliana Caywood

    I am so sorry. I saw grizzlies in Yellowstone in 1992 when I was there with my husband. We spent a month in Yellowstone. So beautiful. It was the last trip we took together as he was diagnosed with cancer in 1994. I have hundreds of pictures and that memory will live in my heart forever. Such a beautiful place.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you Juliana. I’m so glad you and your husband had the opportunity to experience Yellowstone in 1992. It’s a very magical place.

  • someone who cares

    thank you for your great story of her and her whole family. At least I am glad to hear she went protecting her family and not by some killer known as human ya I am so happy for that. They aren’t my favorite people at all. Thank you again. Please everyone protect our wild life from the human’s that want them gone. This is a great but sad story. thanks

    • sandysisti

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the story of the Dunraven sow. Although I wish she was still around, I’m also glad that she died a natural death instead of at the hands of a hunter. That would have been a sin.

  • Dannie Kemp

    Thank you Sandy for a wonderful story. I too am a bear lover, a young boar changed my life forever in Alaska while photographing him on the Russian river. The change was for the good I might add. We can learn much from the animal kingdom. I am saddened by your loss but I am reassured by your depth of understanding and love for the animal.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you, Dannie. It is nice to hear from someone else who has had that same personal connection with a bear. They touch us in so many ways and you are right that we can learn much from them.

  • Haya Rothstein

    Thank you for the beautiful story of Dunraven sow’s life and your encounter with this remarkable bear.

    • sandysisti

      You are so welcome, Haya. She was very special to me.

  • Terry Hendrickson Cooper

    Sandy, thank you so much for your story. Our family was one of the lucky ones that got to watch her and her four cubs in the late summer of 2007. Two days in a row we came to Dunraven Pass to watch them. With four family members taking pictures, we realized when we got home that not one pictures contained all four cubs. I later found a story on the internet about them that did contain all the cubs in one shot. This last summer (2013) we returned to Yellowstone again and returned to Dunraven Pass in hopes of seeing her and her cubs again with no luck. Now I know why.

    • sandysisti

      That’s so wonderful that you got to see the Dunraven girl with her four cubs, Terry. I never got that opportunity, but read so much about her that I felt like I knew them.. It’s so sad to think that not only did she not survive, but none of her cubs did either. I do wish that she was still with us but unfortunately for all of us, that is the way of nature. Thank you for sharing your photos with me. It makes me happy to see her again.

  • someone who cares

    yes I agree with you she went the way she should have protecting her young if that was to be the case. I am so upset over the killing of the wolfs that I just want to yell my head off. So many down here have to clue what a thrill it is to see wild animals running around the way they should be. All of them. Down here so many just want to kill and not for food either. well I will stop now thank you again

    • sandysisti

      Thank you.

  • Allison Ballinger Keesey

    awesome article made me cry ~ beautiful bear ….

    • sandysisti

      Thank you, Allison. She was an amazing bear, who is truly missed.

  • Marshane Hildebrand

    What a touching tribute. You made me cry, and smile at the same time. What a wonderful encounter.

    • sandysisti

      Thank you, Marshane. I still cry when I think about this beautiful bear.

  • DAPAKRZ

    Well written account, Sandy. We have pictures of her in early June of 2007 before she adopted the other two. We last saw her in October 2011 with the collar. (Obviously, no cubs). Because the activity on the east end of the Park has been so good in recent years, we rarely patrol Dunraven these days but, I don’t recall hearing about her from any of the other photographers. If anyone would have a better idea of whether she was still alive it would be our mutual friend, J.Y. – The artist formerly known as GRIZYNP.