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Famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 Wows Again, But Now What?


by Todd Wilkinson

MAY 18, 2023

By Todd Wilkinson

For 27 years, Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 has been strolling into human, biological and conservation history in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unbeknownst to her, she’s become the most famous living wild bear on Earth. A delight to millions who have followed her meanderings in real time and remotely, 399 has been, all things considered, on a perilous path of survival punctuated by amazing longevity in a world not always welcoming to her species.

As fearsome as people have tried to portray grizzlies, it isn’t easy being a bear like her having to constantly navigate hazards in a human age called “the Anthropocene.”

This week, as yet another astonishing expression of 399’s endurance and knack for surprise, she came full circle on May 16, 2023, walking out of the Pilgrim Creek drainage in the north end of Grand Teton National Park with a new cub at her side. If bear years can be placed in human context, then think of 399 as both an old new mother and grandma passing through the fading twilight of senescence. 

According to Frank van Manen, who oversees the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, 399 is now the oldest grizzly bear mother on record in Greater Yellowstone to reproduce, adding to an achievement of fecundity that has yielded, best as anyone knows, 18 cubs and somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen grizzlies descended in her bloodline. Prior to this year, van Manen says, there were four females that had produced cubs at age 25. In addition, the oldest-known female bear in Greater Yellowstone had been 27.

“This is the next chapter in an amazing conservation success story. 399 is an ambassador for her species and demonstrates how with concerted effort over decades we can help species thrive,” said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park not long after 399 emerged. 

But, like the final chapter in a thrilling page-turning potboiler filled with twists and turns, the final pages in this bear biography have yet to be written. As the heroine and main protagonist, 399 will play a role in sealing her own fate but there are many variables and human actions remain the wild card.

Two human generations ago, when the population of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone was in free fall, with annual grizzly deaths outpacing reproduction, the number of individual bears in the vast 23-million-acre three-state region had plunged to 136. At that time, federal and state wildlife officials mounted a frantic rescue attempt, using the might of the Endangered Species Act. Together, they implemented a number of actions, among them prohibiting sport hunting, enacting penalties to crack down on poaching, safeguarding habitat, doing everything possible to keep female grizzlies of prime reproductive age alive and addressing “sanitation,” i.e., closing down open pit dumps, bear-proofing garbage cans and getting people to better dispose of trash. 

Today, in hindsight as they reflect backward in time to the year 1996, when the cub who became Grizzly 399 was born—and likely wandered the environs of Pilgrim Creek in the company of her mother—the dividends of the strategy focused on protecting female bears are writ large. 

Wildlife managers often assert that they are tasked with perpetuating populations of species, but they cannot deny the importance of individual animals and their extended families, as exemplified by 399. Just this single mama grizzly, whose own behavior has transformed the way people think about grizzlies and whose status has caused some to cast aspersions on her as “a celebrity bear,” has produced a family tree equal to about one-fifth of the grizzlies that roamed the ecosystem—primarily Yellowstone National Park—in the late 1970s.

Lumping 399 into a generic category of “female bears” would be a mistake because all female bears are unique, possessing of specific genes, ability to reproduce, instincts for staying out of conflict with people and teaching those habits to cubs.  When states like Wyoming speak of making “surplus” bears available for sport hunters and setting a quota for number of females allowed to be killed, it ignores the fact that nurturing the survival of extraordinary individuals ripples at a population level.

In example after example, 399 has defied myths and expectations; she has debunked fear-based depictions of grizzlies held over from the 19th century “frontier,” resetting public understanding at a crucial time in grizzly bear recovery.

Grizzly recovery in Greater Yellowstone is considered one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in history. In recent years, it also has, however, morphed into a bitter debate, pitting states that still evince animosity toward carnivores, environmental laws, federal agencies, and environmentalists against advocates fighting foremost against plans to bring back hunting of grizzlies, so that animals like 399 could be taken as coveted trophies. 

Human affection for 399, manifested as an unprecedented expression of empathy, demonstrates why individual bruins do matter—no different from how individual members of our species influence the social structures of human communities. Far from existing as a nameless faceless creature, it has been 399’s relatability, of helping people better understand things like sentience in living non-human beings (that they possess intelligence, emotions, and personalities) which has made her extraordinary.

“399 is an icon no doubt about that,” says Dr. Christopher Servheen, who for 35 years oversaw national grizzly bear recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which holds management authority over species given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Nearly continuously since 1975, and apart from two instances when delisting happened but was overturned by court challenges brought by environmentalists, the Greater Yellowstone population of grizzlies has been classified as a “threatened” under the ESA.

Now retired from government service, Servheen counts himself as a 399 fan, for he has witnessed the positive effect she has had on people.

Since 2007 and prior to this year, Grizzly 399 had given birth to three sets of triplets, one pair of twins, and two litters of a single cub each, but it was a brood of four cubs, delivered in 2020, that carried the level of awe associated with her to supernova attention. Successfully raising four offspring would be a difficult feat for any mother, let alone a wild grizzly, but for a matriarch to have quadruplets to feed and fend for at age 24? She did it for two and a half years through blizzards, brutal cold and drought,  poor natural food years, fording raging rivers, crossing highways with speeding cars and hundreds of thousands of vehicles, negotiating throngs of tourists, moving through campgrounds and subdivisions filled with a variety of  food temptations that could get her and cubs into trouble, evading domestic dogs roaming off leash, being near tourists packing weapons, and forests holding elk hunters. But she kept her cubs well nourished, prompting many to characterize her persistence as a miracle. Servheen doesn’t disagree with depiction, especially as habitat on public and private lands, once thought to be perpetually secure for grizzlies, is, in fact, now being rapidly inundated by exurban development and rising numbers of outdoor recreationists displacing bears and elevating the likelihood negative encounters between people and sows with cubs.

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After 399 turned out the quads in June 2022, rampant speculation arose.  Would she quietly exit the stage and disappear? Many wondered early this year whether she had gotten safely to her den as an epic snow season descended, whether she had survived, whether she had gotten pregnant, and whether she was fit enough to give birth and raise more cubs. Opinions ranged; optimism floated. Some thought it might be a fitting, poetic end to a legendary life if she simply vanished; others hoped that she would emerge solo from hibernation this spring and spend the last stretch of her life without the stress of being a parent; and still others pined the possibility she would take a final star turn as a mother.

The human community of bear watchers in Jackson Hole is unrivaled in the Lower 48. Photographer Tom Mangelsen, who for several years running, had correctly predicted the exact calendar date each spring when 399 lumbered into public view with new cubs at her side, thought it might happen this year on May 19. He was, it turned out, three days off. 

Mangelsen has been photographing 399 since 2007 and spent the equivalent of several years observing her, her groups of cubs and other grizzlies. He is among a stalwart group of local and visiting photographers and wildlife watchers who have been 399’s most passionate defenders and advocates. A heralded body of Mangelsen images were featured in the 2015 book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek and a new selection, covering the last eight years will appear in a sequel, Grizzly 399: The World’s Most Famous Mother Bear published by Rizzoli scheduled for release in September 2023. I collaborated with Mangelsen in writing the narrative for both books.

The last time Mangelsen had photographed 399 was in September 2022 and the last sighting anyone made of her happened in October. 

Last summer,  Mangelsen and others interviewed for this story said, 399 was seen in the company of a large male, nicknamed “Bruno,” who weighs around 800  pounds and is believed to be the father of several of 399’s cub coteries.  Over the last few years, some people, eager to have a sport hunt reinstated, have spoken of how both 399 and Bruno would be prestigious animals to have mounted or turned into rugs for the trophy room. Wyoming Game and Fish officials say they would likely not allow hunting in transboundary areas of Grand Teton National Park to prevent bears like 399 from being hunted but 399 has roamed widely.

Although appearing physically healthy in the last glimpse he and others caught of 399, Mangelsen said there was a lot of uncertainty about whether she would be seen again.  On a downbeat note, one of 399’s recent subadult quads, not long after she turned the foursome out in June 2022, died in a lethal management action carried out near Cora, Wyoming by Wyoming Game and Fish, which claimed the subadult male had become conditioned to eating human food and posed a danger to people. That characterization has been disputed.

On Tuesday, May 16, rumors swirled as a number of different bear sightings were made in the northern reaches of Grand Teton National Park. Several different grizzly bear females roam the Jackson Hole environs. Jacob Krank, who works at Mangelsen’s Images of Nature art gallery in Jackson, headed north to the vicinity of Pilgrim Creek where a line of 125 cars and crowd of 250 gathered in the afternoon near the intersection of US Highway 89 and Pilgrim Creek Road. (The day before, Mangelsen had left the valley for a trip to Europe; it was only the second time in the last 15 years he hadn’t been nearby when 399 emerged).

“It was incredible, all the anticipation, excitement and buildup that had been happening over weeks and all the guessing of when she might possibly come out,” Krank, himself a photographer, said.  The sight of a fit looking mother griz and cub in the Pilgrim Creek neighborhood caused hearts to palpitate.

“Those of us who were there weren’t allowing ourselves to say, ‘It’s her.’ No one was willing to say ‘Yes, it’s definitely her’ until we received confirmation,” Krank said  Finally, Tyler Brasington, a Grand Teton Park  bear management ranger on the scene, cross referenced photos with 399’s ear tag number, confirming it was her. Joyousness spread like wildfire. Soon, after MoJo shared one of Krank’s images on its Facebook page, there were people on the other side of the globe who expressed their astonishment. Today, there are hundreds of  excellent photographs circulated on Facebook and Instagram and they’ve generated millions of views.

At his hotel room in Europe, Mangelsen nearly pulled an all-nighter as he eagerly awaited updates. “I’m so happy that she is still with us,” he told Mountain Journal from Geneva, Switzerland at 2 am Europe time. “She continues to amaze, and breaking records as the most incredible grizzly that has ever lived in our lifetime. Hopefully she can continue to do her thing but so much of that will be determined by human actions—our ability to be under our best behavior and give her space. Years from now many of us will look back and say we knew 399 in her time. How lucky we are but helping her persist is a test we are being presented with now.”

Counted among the most ecstatic to learn the news was Mangelsen’s close friend. Dr. Jane Goodall, a vocal admirer of 399 for many years. Goodall is an opponent of trophy hunting, and she has expressed her opposition to delisting. The latter is a position she shares with Dr Servheen who was once a supporter of removing federal protection, but he has reversed course. The reason is because of recently legislative action in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, he does not trust the states to continue the progress of bear recovery. He also is gravely concerned about the rising loss of  habitat, ounce though secure, to private land development and pressure form outdoor recreation on public land. 

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Here, I must add a personal disclosure: I’ve been writing about grizzlies since 1986, when a photographer in Yellowstone was fatally mauled and partially eaten by a mother bear with cubs. The photographer had been following the grizzlies at close range near Canyon and likely incited aggressive behavior from the mother by getting too close. 

In the ensuing years, I wrote many stories about grizzly conservation, including numerous magazine and newspapers stories about the debate over pushes to remove grizzlies from federal protection. A whole chapter on that topic was featured in my book Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. In it several scientists, including Dr. David Mattson, who spent time with the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said talk of recovery was premature based on factors such as loss of important food like whitebark pine nuts, loss of spawning cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake to lake trout, private land development patterns, bears getting killed by elk hunters or removed to protect cattle. 

Mattson in recent years has claimed the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population stopped growing, a function of quality habitat being lost. This year, van Manen at the annual spring meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee made a statement that confirmed at least part of Mattson’s assertion.

In my recent book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America’s Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem, there’s a chapter titled “To Kill A Grizzly” that describes my first exposure to 399 in summer 2006. At that point, no one outside of bear research circles had ever heard of her. I didn’t actually see her, but I heard about her based the fact she had been radio-collared by the bear study team and her movements were followed in Jackson Hole.

Back then, I joined Dr. Chuck Schwartz on a hike into the Bridger-Teton National Forest flanking the Pilgrim Creek drainage. Fitted by canisters of bear spray in hip holsters, we set out because I was writing a magazine story about grizzly delisting. With a GPS device in his hand, we went to a coordinate point where a bear —399 it turned out—had been weeks before but had moved out of the area. Arriving at the destination, Schwartz showed me a grizzly day bed of matted grass where this bruin had rested. I laid down on my back and stared upward toward the forest canopy, imagining what it would be like to be this bear.

399 was relatively young and researchers believed she had been the mother of a single cub which was likely killed by a male grizzly.  That summer, she would mate with another bear. No one then had any idea how 399 would become a darling of the bear-watching world,  with each successive year bringing new intrigue and, as was often the case, meanderings in plain sight of people with cubs at her side. 

The next spring, 2007, she emerged with a set of triplet cubs and her legend began. One of those cubs a daughter, 610, is now at age 16 in the prime of her life and has raised multiple cubs.  Soon of them will have their cubs. 

What created a stir is that the foursome was visually accessible along the roadsides of Jackson Hole, enabling wildlife watchers, similar to what exists with wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, to compile a fuller picture not based on fleeting, elusive glimpses. 

Only once did 399 make physical contact with a person, and that happened with that first set of triplets. A schoolteacher attending a conference at Jackson Lake Lodge was mauled when he accidently wandered near an elk carcass on which 399 and her triplets were eating. He survived and 399 could have killed him if that had been her intention. Swift thinking on the part of Grand Teton Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott who consulted with Servheen resulted in 399 being kept alive because the mauling was deemed a natural response for a bear feeding on a carcass.

Notably, the schoolteacher also asked authorities not to do 399 or her cubs harm. Since that incident, neither 399 nor any of her cubs have expressed unnatural aggressiveness toward people. That doesn't mean they aren't capable of hurting a human who is perceived to be a threat or startles them. 399 isn't tame; she is wild; she's not a spirit animal searching for a human soulmate. Had the decision to spare 399 and her cubs not been made in the wake of the mauling, her contribution to the population which will only grow, and her story would have ended right then and there.

Neither 399 nor any of her cubs have expressed unnatural aggressiveness toward people. That doesn't mean they aren't capable of hurting a human who is perceived to be a threat or startles them. 399 isn't tame; she is wild; she's not a spirit animal searching for a human soulmate. Had the decision to spare 399 and her cubs not been made in the wake of the mauling, her contribution to the population which will only grow, and her story would have ended right then and there.

610’s siblings—one being a sister, 615, was killed by a hunter just outside Grand Teton on the Bridger-Teton National Forest as she was feeding on a moose carcass. The hunter claimed he was in danger and shot her in self-defense. Eventually, the shooter was charged by investigators and convicted of killing 615. Their brother, Grizzly 587, was lethally removed from Game and Fish officials after he fed on a domestic cow and labeled a repeat offender.

Grizzlies had a mystique prior to the arrival of 399, but the way they were perceived by the public was shaped by incidental viewing. Schwartz told me that after 399’s first cub was killed, she probably selected the frontcountry because it was a place where solitary male bears do not to venture. The roadsides had enough natural foods nearby and 399 found people to be less threatening than boar grizzlies.

Certainly, especially in Yellowstone, avid wildlife watchers paid close attention to bears seen frequenting roadside areas from one year to the next. But 399 and her composure around people was noteworthy and her longevity with having multiple successive sets of cubs across the span of a decade and a half placed her in a league of her own. Even though, as bear biologists say, there is a version of 399 in every drainage today where grizzlies can persist in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies.

Most of all, 399’s composure challenged the human knee-jerk tendency people have to only see grizzlies through a lens of danger and fear, and which historically provided a justification for treating them as menaces and thus eradicating them. As Dr Susan Clark, a scientist who founded the Jackson-based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative ,says, “399 would lead her cubs toward a highway where hundreds of people gathered. She knew she wanted to get to the other side, but she kept her cool. She was making 100 different assessments in her own mind about what constituted a threat to her cubs and it’s a tribute to her that she was able to make such a keen read on the behavior of people."

399 became the antithesis of how grizzlies have been characterized, especially in hunting magazines and adventure literature as blood-thirsty monsters that terrorize humans and therefore must be harassed, chased away in order to create fear toward people, or put down to pre-empt a deadly mauling. 

"There's been a zillion little things we've all witnessed that have caused us to appreciate and respect her," Mangelsen says. "When she had the quads, we saw her cross Pilgrim Creek during high water, keeping an eye on all of the cubs. After one got caught in the current and went rushing by in rapids, she raced into the water and rescued it. There were the times when she got separated from one of her cubs and would call, and race around, and worry about it, only to exude motherly tenderness when they were reunited. There was the overt grief she expressed, the bawling and suffering after her single cub, Snowy, was struck and killed by a hit and run driver. There was the time that her daughter 610 adopted one of 399's triplets; there's the playfulness and stern protectiveness she has brought to her mothering. You see all of this, as so many of us have, and you want to help them stay out of harm. I know that some wildlife managers hide behind their 'we only manage for populations' argument because they don't want to admit that sentience exists in non-human beings. The reason they do that is because it makes it a lot harder for them to justify a hunting season where grizzlies would be killed for sport, for fun, as trophies, or because they say there are 'surplus bears' so that they can be 'harvested' as if they were ears of corn or bushels of wheat. They know that if they allow bears like 399 into their hearts there's no going back. A wild grizzly is different from a domestic dog in how we interact with those animals but the same kind of emotions and intelligence we admire in our dogs is there, indisputably, in grizzlies."

What does Mangelsen worry about? He too struggles with the paradox of humans feeling drawn to 399 which brings the danger of her being loved to death. Untold thousands have seen 399 and other bears, yet it only takes one dumb or ill-informed  maneuver on the part of a single person to have fatal consequences. That's a fear shared in many places, including Tom Miner Basin located just north of Yellowstone Park and astride of the Gallatin Mountain Range. There, conscious, tenacious efforts to achieve co-existence between grizzlies and ranchers have worked but now crowds of onlookers, some of them unruly or irresponsible, are on the verge of destroying the fragile balance and peace of the neighborhood. Urgently needed is innovative problem-solving from Park County, Montana, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and respectful citizens.

In 2007, Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott and her staff created a special unit of interpretive rangers and civilian volunteers called the Wildlife Brigade. It plays a variety of roles, but two prime objectives are bringing order to the chaos that happens with bear and other wildlife jams and educating the public about safe and responsible wildlife viewing. Through text messaging and viral information sharing on social media, a sighting of 399 can easily trigger large crowds in which people believe they can park anywhere, leave their vehicles, surround bears, and sometimes create dangerous situations around grizzlies. 

Sue Cedarholm, longtime assistant to Tom Mangelsen, wildlife photographer and artist, is part of the cadre there from the very beginning. “Here we are, in the 17th year since the first set of triplets and she comes out looking gorgeous. But then you realize this is her final hurrah and it’s bittersweet. I think about how many hours we’ve spent waiting for her and the cubs in spring or late fall and waiting for her to go into the den.”

It takes two and half years—three spring/summer seasons—for a mother to usher her cub from infancy to sub-adulthood where they fend for themselves. “We don’t know if she [399] will last two more years and be there for the cub. Compared to previous years, this really is the end of an era.”

Auspiciously, 399 now has solid body mass while daughter 610 with three yearling cubs appears thin, Cedarholm said. 399’s lone cub, is large for its young age, benefitting from having 399’s milk all to itself.

Members of the Wildlife Brigade can find themselves in tough spots, Cedarholm says. Public enthusiasm for seeing wildlife  can yield experiences remembered for a lifetime but the truth is that many visitors do not know how to behave responsibly. Sometimes, locals have portrayed the brigade as being heavy handed, but most admit that in the absence of the brigade serious incidents could easily erupt between people and people and people and animals. 

Safety is never guaranteed for mothers with cubs. Fate can be fickle. A year ago, another female bear, nicknamed Blondie, had three cubs of the year but sometime after June 11, 2022, they vanished. While bear managers have said they may have been preyed upon by a male bear, Mangelsen, Cedarholm and others believe it might have something to do with bear trapping and tagging operations.

If Blondie had been caught in a culvert trap, the cubs might have been left vulnerable to predators. Bear managers have rejected that theory. Still, Mangelsen has been outspoken in saying that setting culvert traps in areas known to be frequented by sows with cubs is irresponsible because the falling trap door could easily kill or injure a cub as its mother climbs inside, drawn to a bait. Researchers say compiling data on bears has been key to better bear conservation.  Servheen offers praise to his Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues who succeeded him and to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that devoted tremendous attention in autumn 2021 to helping steer 399 and the quads away from trouble when they wandered literally through Jackson and into a maze of subdivisions and ranches south of town.  

Adds Cedarholm: “They bent over backwards to help 399 alive. No one wanted to have anything bad happen to her on their watch. Hilary Cooley [who took the job as national grizzly bear recovery coordinator after Servheen retired] spent a month in Jackson Hole in 2021 driving around all night to make sure people were looking out for her. When Felicia [another popular female grizzly] was up on Togwotee Pass with her cubs they were trying to keep the bears off the road because cars were tearing down the highway at 70 miles an hour. You can’t claim they don’t care. But there’s only so much they can do. That’s the problem.”

In autumn 2021, I reached out to Cooley and asked her about that special care. “This effort is well beyond our normal level of attention given to other bears in conflict,” she said. “We do not have the resources to spend this effort on other bears. The Service recognizes the high level of interest in Grizzly Bear 399 and therefore we are working with our partners in an intensive effort to protect her and her four yearlings and to mitigate further human-caused conflict.” 

Grizzlies are incredibly smart and never forget a food reward. A mother that teaches her cub where to find natural food is a vital survival skill. A parent who isn’t as savvy as 399 can impart habits that doom a cub to an early death in adulthood. “Over 90 percent of bear mortality is human-caused,” Cooley said. “Many of these deaths are preventable. Site-related conflicts such as bears successfully obtaining garbage, pet and livestock feed, apiaries, chickens etc, can often be addressed by securing attractants; taking actions such as bear-proof containers, moving attractants inside a solid building or using electric fence.”

“Over 90 percent of bear mortality is human-caused. Many of these deaths are preventable. Site-related conflicts such as bears successfully obtaining garbage, pet and livestock feed, apiaries, chickens etc, can often be addressed by securing attractants; taking actions such as bear-proof containers, moving attractants inside a solid building or using electric fence.”  —Hilary Cooley, national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Why aren’t more counties in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems implemented rules for bear-proof containers, particularly in wildland-urban interfaces where exurbia pushes up against public land?

Since grizzlies started recolonizing Jackson Hole, land management agencies and the community have had to adapt. For years, domestic livestock grazing was allowed inside Grand Teton National Park, part of a deal struck when the modern boundaries of the park were established in 1950.  Ranchers believed that bears feeding on cows should not be tolerated even inside the national park.  Another controversial holdover from Grand Teton’s creation was autumn  elk hunting—indeed the only major big game hunt allowed inside a crown jewel national park in the Lower 48.

Together with Tim Mayo, Kent Nelson and the non-profit conservation group Nelson co-founded called Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Cedarholm, Mangelsen and other citizens, Grand Teton banned hunting in areas of the park near the Snake River to reduce risks to grizzlies. 

The controversial hunt resulted in a number of harrowing encounters  between hunters and bears that were drawn to carcasses after wapiti were shot. Concern for 399 and other grizzlies served as a catalyst. During one year, Mangelsen captured a photo of a dead male grizzly, which a hunter shot claiming self-defense, being dragged out by horses.  All of this is part of the backdrop to 399’s existence.

Another consequence of 399’s presence, precipitated by her circumnavigation of Jackson, is that city and county officials woke up to the need to mandate bear-proof trashcans for all residents, something that was pioneered in the Canadian town of Canmore, gateway to Banff National Park. “She made people here aware that grizzlies can be anywhere and it’s time to stop being lackadaisical,” Cederholm said. “If we say we want to live in wild country where wild animals live, then we need to be responsible and we need to take that duty seriously.”

Cedarholm says the vibe that characterizes bear watching today is different from the advent of 399 first taking the public stage. “We had a different kind of connection. Grizzlies were so new in Jackson Hole and we felt like guardians trying to help prevent harm from coming to 399 and the bears who re-established this valley as a home. So many people out there now feel like they own her. The volume of people out there now, for it being the middle of May in Jackson Hole well before the start of the main tourist season, is insane.”

Only hours after 399 appeared, Cedarholm watched park visitors pouring out of their cars, some even trying to scramble below the highway bridge over Pilgrim Creek where 399 and cub were in the water. “I have no qualms about yelling at people when they are being idiots,” she says. “The bears are the ones to suffer when people are ill behaved.”  

She and others have noticed subtle behavioral changes evident with 399 and 610 in recent years as crowd sizes ballooned.  “It’s true that 399 adopted the roadside to escape any danger posed by male bears, but when she had her four cubs stayed away from large massings of people. 610 even more so. She is very good at evading people.”

While 399 may be at the summit of her fame, Servheen says it would be a terrible mistake for humans to now hound mother and cub like paparazzi.  It’s vitally important to recognize, he notes, that she is old, and that as an elder, dealing with a slowdown in physical agility, fatigue and aches and pains from senescence, her admirers, more than anything else, need to be unselfish and cut her slack. 

“She’s demonstrated a skill to live near us. But she’s not magic or invincible. She’s been personalized in a way that people believe they know her," he says. "Contrary to what some people might think, grizzlies are not looking to make friends with us. Heading into summer, she’ll be doing her best to raise that cub in a sea of humans.”

“She’s demonstrated a skill to live near us. But she’s not magic or invincible. She’s been personalized in a way that people believe they know her, Contrary to what some people might think, grizzlies are not looking to make friends with us. Heading into summer, she’ll be doing her best to raise that cub in a sea of humans.”  —Dr. Christopher Servheen, former head of national grizzly bear recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

During the course of his career, Servheen and his colleagues with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team have tracked hundreds of bears  and from all of that experience there are patterns. It can be a challenge for older bears to get by.

399 is not only long in the tooth but her incisors, the teeth she uses to snip grass and other wild edibles are worn down, the likely result of them grinding against rocks and dirt and bones of rodents and elk carcasses. Her sharp canids and molars, however, are still in good shape, Mangelsen says, having studied photos he has taken of her with open mouth, but time takes its toll. 

Never in my career as a journalist have I witnessed such a devoted bunch of wildlife advocates array around an individual animal in Greater Yellowstone. People in Jackson Hole and an extended network of their friends shared information and kept tabs on 399’s whereabouts. Crowd sizes have steadily grown over the years, for good or bad. The vigilance, as much as it created hassles for government wildlife managers, and dangers for 399,  also created a gauntlet of ironic protection.

More eyeballs kept on 399 served as a disincentive for individuals who want to do her harm—people who hate carnivores, hate the federal government, hate environmental laws, and hate environmentalists concerned about the future of bears and want to keep them federally protected and not hunted. Their attitudes may sound Draconian to some, yes, but they are real. 

In those early years, I was once with Mangelsen who, just for fun, had bumper stickers designed that read, “I Saw Grizzly 399.” At an overlook near Jackson Lake Lodge, with Willow Flats in the foreground, Jackson Lake in midground and the Tetons rising behind, a crowd gathered to watch 399 teaching her first three cubs how to stalk elk calves. 

 "I know that some wildlife managers hide behind their ‘we only manage for populations’ argument because they don’t want to admit that sentience exists in non-human beings. The reason they do that is because it makes it a lot harder for them to justify a hunting season where grizzlies would be killed for sport, for fun, as trophies, or because they say there are ‘surplus bears’ so that they can be harvested as if they were ears of corn or bushels of wheat. They know that if they allow bears like 399 into their hearts there’s no going back. A wild grizzly is different from a domestic dog in how we interact with those animals but the same kind emotions and intelligence we admire in our dogs is there, indisputably, in grizzlies.”  —Jackson Hole nature photographer Tom Mangelsen

Several families with young kids were present. Mangelsen offered several of them a chance to peer through his long camera lens set up on a tripod and watch the matriarch in action. The parents offered profuse praise to Mangelsen and said, “Thank you. They’ll never forget this for the rest of their lives.” Mangelsen handed them stickers and they immediately put them on the family vehicles. Mangelsen, who does not have children of his own, got choked up, seeing how passionate those young park visitors became. “This is how interest in wildlife conservation begins,” he said. “Every single one of us who care about wildlife have had formative experiences in our lives. Those experiences are what lit the spark of interest and it’s why so many of us grow up and become advocates. It’s amazing and hits you right here [he pointed to his heart] to see the impact that this bear has on those kids.”

That was a decade and a half ago. 399 still lives. What’s one gauge of how she affected public interest in grizzly conservation? in the months leading up to 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service received 650,000 comments, the vast majority opposing delisting and most of those also expressing opposition to bringing back a sport hunt of grizzlies. Public comments are not referenda and issues are not decided that way, as if voters were showing up an election booth, but the volume sent a signal to those in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, US Forest Service and US Interior Department that people were and still are closely watching the politics of grizzly bear conservation. 

Puzzling is how seldom, if ever, the two successive governors of Wyoming—Matt Mead who was succeed by Mark Gordon—touted the presence of 399 being a resident of their state. In many other states, governors would have proudly boasted they had 399 as a mascot.

Instead, hostility toward grizzlies and wolves has been palpable. It’s almost as if conservatives can’t allow themselves to admit that the popularity of 399 has been a very good thing for the state, giving huge numbers of people a positive association with Wyoming. In 2017, Mangelsen says, the state seemed almost tone deaf to outrage generated when it announced it would allow the killing of up to 20 bears in the first trophy season targeting grizzlies in 42 years. The hunting season never commenced because a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice resulted in grizzlies being placed back under protection of the ESA before hunting began. 

Society, Servheen says, ought to have an honest conversation about what recovery means. He says numbers provide only a snapshot at a moment in time. More important is understanding trendlines pertaining to quality habitat that can support a viable population and withstand a growing gauntlet of pressures. When he looks at the trendlines they don't align with the optimism he once had.

Nearly half a century after grizzlies were given federal protection, does conservation mean allowing states to manage so-called "recovered populations" at minimal numbers? Hundreds of grizzlies have died in Greater Yellowstone from a variety of human causes in the last decade alone. Some proponents of delisting assert that the reasons we recover and save a species like the grizzly is so hunting opportunities can be provided again. 

Today elected officials from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are hardly veiled in their reasoning for wanting to get grizzlies delisted. They portray grizzly recovery as a burden that was foisted upon them, and they want to reward citizens whom they say have been inconvenienced by grizzly bear conservation measures. Efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to override the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently conducting a biological review of the status of grizzlies, and force delisting politically.

Servheen says that’s a bad move. It is a myth, he notes, that saving the grizzly has been a major economic imposition on those states. Rather than cursing wildness, they ought to realize their good fortune in having bears. Wyoming being able to say it is the home of famous Grizzly 399 ought to be embraced as a blessing, a thing of honor. Who in the world would not want that? 

About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).


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