Black bears may be a fairly common species, but certain aspects of their lives are not common to witness. One such event is when a cub emerges from the den for its very first spring. A tiny ball of fur scrambling around and crying for mother, as mother tries her best to wake up to the new season after a long winter sleep. One incredibly lucky photographer, Peter Mather, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, had a chance encounter during just such an event and was ready with his camera to document the whole thing. We asked him about this incredible experience, and this is what he had to say:

peter mather photo of black bear cub and its mother emerging from den

MNN: How did you know where and when the black bears would emerge?

Peter Mather: I was simply lucky here; I was driving along a road with my partner Terri when she woke me up as she’d spotted a black bear. We pulled over and we saw this little guy stick its head of its den. I believe the family had denned on the side of the road dug into a snowbank beside a culvert. I think the culvert was part of the den or a safety hole for the family.

What was it like to see the new cubs scramble out of the den for the first time?

It was incredible! This little guy was curious and cranky, just like a little kid. He scrambled around, tried to climb up to us, but mostly he screamed and cried for an hour, just like any baby.

Are there particular precautions you need to take around a black bear emerging from the den?

In this case, we didn’t have any concerns. Mom was used to vehicles and very comfortable with us being there. We stayed in our car and watched from a safe place. I believe she was a road bear, in that she spends much of her summer eating grasses along the road. I’d photographed a bear on this stretch of road a couple of times in the past, and suspect that it was all the same bear … the sow of this cub. Anyhow, she was really comfortable with us. She was like a pregnant mom — so tired. She just wanted the cub to stop crying and go to bed so she could get some sleep.

peter mather photo of black bear mother sniffing her cub

What is the importance of bear awareness when traveling in bear country?

I spend half my life in bear county, I've watched over 500 bears in my life. Most from a distance, and have never felt threatened by a bear. I’ve been lucky, but I’m also very cautious. When camping I take care to keep my food safe and away from my tenting area. I always make lots of noise, so that bears know I’m coming, and I always carry bear spray in my hand when walking in bear areas. When photographing bears, I pay close attention to their behavior and demeanor. Reading their cues lets me know when they are uncomfortable with me, and I act accordingly.

What challenges lie ahead for these little black bears as they grow up this year?

Watching this baby bear for an hour as she explored, cried, screamed and explored some more. The one thought that really struck me was that there is no way any person could shoot a bear, after seeing a newborn cub like that. The interactions between the cub and sow were so similar to what you’d see with a mom and her child. I had so much compassion for this tiny little bear with no teeth, about to tackle this tough world. I wish every hunter had to see that before they could get a license to kill bears.

What was your favorite moment from this experience? Do you hope to repeat it next spring when cubs begin to emerge with their mothers again?

My favorite moment was watching the interaction with mom. The similarities to a mom and daughter are eerie. At one point the cub crawled up onto her mom and started to nap. This happened no more than 20 feet away. That was really special. I really don’t expect to have a repeat experience — that is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

peter mather photo of black bear cub climbing up into mother bear's lap

Related posts on MNN:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

As tiny black bear cub emerges from den, lucky photographer documents once-in-a-lifetime event
Through sheer luck, a wildlife photographer spent an hour with a teensy wild black bear cub and its mother.