Jackson Hole resident Tim Mayo was headed over to Victor, Idaho, to run errands in the middle of an October day when he eyed something sure to turn a head: a black bear sow tailed by a string of cubs.
A real estate agent with a passion for wildlife and landscape photography, Mayo had his camera in tow and promptly pulled over as soon as he hit a safe spot in the highway leading over Teton Pass.
“I thought, ‘I really need to photograph this, even though the light’s not good,’” Mayo said. “I pulled out my camera, laid it across the top of my car and got two frames off.”
Another passerby pulled over, ruining the moment. The ursine family disappeared. Nevertheless, Mayo got his two photos and was intrigued by the unusually large litter.
“I was tickled to see four,” he said. “I would have been tickled to see three.”
That evening, while processing photos, Mayo’s stoke soared. When the photographer saw his first frame on the larger display, he learned he missed a baby bruin.
He emailed the shot to WyoFile, and it turns out that Mayo’s hurried midday photography stop provided evidence of the largest Wyoming black bear litter documented in recent history.
“We’ve had four cubs, but I can’t think of a time when we’ve seen five,” said Ryan Kindermann, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who specializes in black bears.
Kindermann qualified that by saying he can only speak for his seven-year tenure of working for the state.
Five cubs isn’t out of the cards for the species. A record six-cub litter was once documented in Pennsylvania, according to the North American Bear Center.
Still, five cubs is pretty extraordinary.
“In Wyoming the average is 2.1 cubs,” Kindermann said. “The most common [litter size] we’ll see is one to three.”
The five baby bruins’ prospects aren’t especially clear. Unlike with grizzly bears, Kindermann said, there hasn’t been an abundance of research tracking the survival of black bear cubs.
While the cubs may not all make it to see another year, Mayo did manage to see the family of six in an aspen patch in essentially the same location the very next day. Once again, he said, the photography opportunity was screwed up by another person stopping. With a growing audience, the bears all boogied.