Famous fivesome offer Easter weekend surprise to wildlife watchers

JACKSON — Members of the Grizzly 399 fan club had been staking out Pilgrim Creek for weeks, waiting for the celebrity bear to make her first appearance.

Among them, Jill Hall had guessed that the famous mom would emerge April 1. Instead, she showed herself more than two weeks later, a span that saw Hall, 59, camping out in the snow, hoping to be near the action.

Watching Grizzly 399 is “almost a spiritual experience,” said Hall, who doesn’t normally camp in the snow.

As snow once again started to fall Saturday, the grizzly and her brood emerged in the afternoon to 15 to 20 carloads of spectators. An entourage of roughly 100 vehicles soon coalesced around the famous fivesome as the bears promenaded down along Pilgrim Creek, crossed the road to Willow Flats and forded the Snake River before continuing south in Grand Teton National Park.

“It left us all really speechless,” said wildlife photographer Tiffany Taxis. “Everyone was just overjoyed to see all five.”

Hall admired how the mother grizzly led her cubs, turning her head to keep an eye on them, especially one cub that tends to lag behind the others.

“She’s still definitely in charge for a mom her age,” Hall said.

But that will soon change as her roughly 2-year-old cubs strike out on their own. Her and her cubs’ actions last season — when they traveled through southern Jackson Hole, getting into human-related foods and moving through downtown Jackson — have her followers on high alert.

And she’s continuing to move south in the park. On Tuesday evening, Grand Teton Chief of Staff Jeremy Barnum said 399 and her cubs had been spotted near the Chapel of Transfiguration near Moose. He said that wasn’t necessarily cause for alarm and that her trajectory was “part of a movement pattern that we’ve seen before.”

Still, he cautioned: “The farther south she goes, the more we all need to pay attention and be vigilant.”

At 26, 399 is relatively old for a grizzly. Bear watchers wondered what condition she would be in and whether she would emerge at all.

“I was starting to worry about her,” said Tom Mangelsen, a Jackson Hole wildlife photographer who’s followed 399 around the valley for years.

The mother griz is one of the most well-known animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if not the most well-known. But she is also a bear that’s gotten into conflicts and become habituated to human presence.

In 2007, she and her three yearling cubs made a name for themselves as they foraged along the roads between Colter Bay and Oxbow Bend in Teton Park. They also became notorious that year after 399 attacked a hiker who stumbled across her and her cubs feeding on an elk carcass near Jackson Lake Lodge. She bit the hiker on the buttocks.

The hiker survived, and 399’s actions were classified as “defensive.” Officials didn’t take further management actions.

399 has since mothered a number of cubs and raised them along park roads, delighting tourists, wildlife photographers and wildlife watchers alike. From 2012 to 2019, her presence attracted thousands of bear watchers. She’s inspired stickers and her own Facebook group, and birthed other sows, like Grizzly 610, who went on to be successful, semi-famous bears of their own.

People are now passionate about 399’s survival.

“Depending who you talk to, that’s the most important bear that’s ever been in the GYE,” Wyoming Game and Fish Large Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said at an early April press conference largely focused on 399 and her four cubs.

Wildlife managers expect that the cubs will separate from their mother sometime this season.

For the past two years, 399 has led her cubs into the valley’s developed southern reaches where they’ve gotten into livestock feed, garbage and beehives: Human-related foods that can be deadly for grizzlies and other bears. 

After getting food rewards, bears can get used to a food source — and become aggressive in trying to reach it, potentially posing a danger to humans. When that happens, wildlife officials consider hazing, relocating or removing bears, either by euthanasia or placement in a zoo or other animal rescue facility.

All of those options are on the table for dealing with 399 and her cubs, wildlife managers have said.

To prevent any of those steps, wildlife officials are putting the onus on people.

They’re asking residents to store garbage in bear-resistant containers, secure livestock feed, pet food, compost, and beehives, and hang bird feeders to make them inaccessible to bears. Teton County will require all of that as part of a recently-approved update to its land development regulations. But that update won’t go into effect until July 1.

Compliance in the meantime is voluntary but encouraged by local, state and federal wildlife officials.

“We want people to be able to see bears in their natural habitat,” Thompson said in April. “With that comes great responsibility, I think. If that gets abused, things can go awry extremely quickly.”

Mangelsen said the path 399 and her cubs are on is fairly typical. 

“I’ve seen her go as far as the airport right after she comes out of the den,” said Mangelsen, who spoke with the News&Guide before Grizzly 399 was spotted near Moose.

Teton Park’s branch manager of fish and wildlife, Kate Wilmot, said 399’s path over the weekend, which took her to the Signal Mountain area, was “totally normal for her within her home range.” 

Barnum said Tuesday night that she’s moved as far south as she had by then “in years past.”

Wilmot said where Grizzly 399 and her cubs go will depend, in part, on what foods she’s able to find, which will depend on weather and moisture over the next few weeks.

“Bears are opportunistic omnivores so they have an opportunity to diet switch when their natural foods aren’t in season for whatever reason,” Wilmot said. “We just have to see what Mother Nature gives us.”

If 399 does head farther south, she could once again enter developed areas where she’s encountered human foods in the past. There’s concern that the young bears have learned that behavior from their mother. 

Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, came to Jackson last fall to manage 399’s foray into developed areas.

“We’re probably going to have to deal with at least one of the cubs in some shape or form,” Cooley previously told the News&Guide.

In the meantime, park officials are planning to manage 399 and other bears the way they typically do: Managing crowds and traffic around roadside bears and trying to prevent conflict.

But they also have a bit of an advantage this year when it comes to 399, at least until the cubs are kicked off. Two of the cubs were radio collared last year, and park officials are watching that tracking data.

“We’re monitoring their movement pretty closely,” Barnum said.

The park’s wildlife brigade, a team of roughly 30 park volunteers and three park staff who manage bear jams, is also up and running.

All of that comes as bears emerge, and 399 in particular captures the hearts of her fans like wildlife photographer Joe Stone.

“I’m more worried about people than I am anything else,” Stone said. “I’m just hoping our community can do the right thing.”