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Griz 399 And Cubs Pay A Harrowing Visit To The Jackson Hole Suburbs

Bruin mama, considered most famous in the world, ventures into a danger zone, leaving human fans on pins and needles

Tiny when they emerged from the den this spring, 399's four cubs have grown up fast. Keeping all of them well fed and healthy while navigating mine fields of dangers is no easy task. Many believe 399's uncharacteristic walkabout to the suburbs of Jackson Hole might be caused by her quest to find food prior to hibernation.  Photo courtesy Sue Ewald Cedarholm who took this photograph of the five bears near the Snake River. To see more of Cedarholm's images go to suecedarholm.com
Tiny when they emerged from the den this spring, 399's four cubs have grown up fast. Keeping all of them well fed and healthy while navigating mine fields of dangers is no easy task. Many believe 399's uncharacteristic walkabout to the suburbs of Jackson Hole might be caused by her quest to find food prior to hibernation. Photo courtesy Sue Ewald Cedarholm who took this photograph of the five bears near the Snake River. To see more of Cedarholm's images go to suecedarholm.com
By Todd Wilkinson

The unexpected wandering this week of the world’s most famous grizzly bear and her four cubs deep into the suburbs of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is riveting the attention of  concerned fans throughout the Greater Yellowstone region and around the world via social media.

The 24-year-old mother bruin, long known as “399”—an identity given her decades ago by bear researchers—has been perilously navigating a human-dense gauntlet in Jackson Hole known as the West Bank. The area generally encompasses the flats of the valley stretching from Teton Village southward to the tiny enclave of Wilson and lying between the Tetons to the west and east toward the Snake River.

But late Wednesday, new unconfirmed reports suggested that maybe 399 shifted her position yet again drifting back toward the north. However, it was revealed Thursday that the clan was south of the town of Jackson, on a ranch in an area known as South Park bounded on the east by busy US Highway 191 and on the west by the Snake River.

Now, a recap of what has ensued during this last full week of October.

Far from the terrain she normal frequents in and around Grand Teton National Park, 399 and her quartet of cubs born this year were spotted Tuesday along the heavily-trafficked Moose-Wilson Road dozens of miles from her usual autumn haunts.  

Moose-Wilson Road (State Highway 390) is notorious for being a stretch of pavement where many moose have been struck and killed by vehicles—more lethal for moose, in fact, than any other highway in Teton County. On Tuesday evening just around dark, there was a report of a car nearly colliding with one of 399’s cubs as they crossed the road a few miles north of the Highway 22/390 intersection.

After nightfall arrived, the five-some disappeared into darkness. But on Wednesday morning they were on the move again, this time headed further west through the outskirts of Wilson.

The exact locations of her whereabouts will not be divulged here, in part to not induce crowds to go looking for her but also because doing so is moot since the family continued to roam the equivalent of several miles each day.

Still, wildlife advocates say it is important that Jackson Hole residents and visitors passing through the southwest corner of the valley be aware of 399’s presence. Motorists are being asked to slow down and drive with heightened awareness while those with homes are advised to leash any loose dogs, secure trash and any potential unnatural food attractants, to make noise when outdoors in yards with lots of foliage and carry bear spray.

° ° ° °

Any story here would be incomplete without mentioning again how far she has come, in debunking the reputation of grizzlies crafted in an earlier less-ecologically literate age and adding new chapters to her expectation-defying life. 

Born in 1996, 399 has given birth to three different sets of triplets in addition to the four that emerged with her in May of this year. In all, two dozen bears are descended from her as cubs and adult offspring that have produced their own cubs. 

While that is an amazing record of grizzly reproduction, a significant number of those in her bloodline have died from various kinds of lethal encounters with people. Some have been struck by cars, another was shot by a hunter who was convicted of shooting the bear without just cause, another was killed for eating livestock and another trapped and removed because it ventured into the same suburbs where 399 went this week. That bruin was deemed a potential safety hazard to humans.

Every year, 399 has demonstrated a fairly calm temperament and become adept at moving around large groups of onlookers sometimes numbering in the hundreds along the roadsides.  Her uncommon tolerance for human presence, and thus her visual accessibility, has only heightened her fame, but it also has attracted people who carelessly venture too close, putting themselves—and her—in danger.

More than a decade ago, 399 mauled a hiker near Jackson Lake Lodge who accidentally stumbled upon her first set of triplet cubs as they feasted on an elk carcass. 

At the time, Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott chose not to take action and remove 399, saying that the bear was only behaving naturally under the circumstances. Scott’s decision proved to be a fateful and, in many ways, monumental one, for in the years since 399 has risen as perhaps the living poster child for grizzlies and their recovery. 
Ironic, maybe, is that while Mangelsen was out looking for grizzly 399 east of Jackson Lake last week, she showed up barely a stone's throw from his house in the Meadow subdivision.  They dined ravenously on hawthorn berries with the cubs using a buck and rail fence as a perch for reaching the food as 399 pulled the branches down with her paws. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
Ironic, maybe, is that while Mangelsen was out looking for grizzly 399 east of Jackson Lake last week, she showed up barely a stone's throw from his house in the Meadow subdivision. They dined ravenously on hawthorn berries with the cubs using a buck and rail fence as a perch for reaching the food as 399 pulled the branches down with her paws. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
Normally, 399 and differing broods of offspring she’s had over the years would now be foraging mostly on a broad sweep of public land that includes the intersection of Grand Teton Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the vicinity of Pilgrim Creek and the National Elk Refuge. 

Favorite destinations in the past have included rich patches of hawthorn berries along US Highway 26 and a portion of Moose-Wilson Road in Grand Teton Park where it narrows and often closes down at times to accommodate bruin feeding. With elk hunting happening in both the park and national forest, too, she also is known to feast on gut piles left behind by hunters who field dressed their wapiti and on wounded animals that died and were not recovered from the field. 

However, the latter habit brings its own risks. Bear researchers in Greater Yellowstone say that some grizzlies will move toward the sound of rifle shots, having learned to associate the echoing rapports with a fresh meat meal.  In addition, in contrast to how hikers are told to pass through grizzly country—making noise and hiking in groups of four—hunters often stalk elk and deer by bushwhacking quietly and with stealth.

Gut piles and leftover carcasses, because they give bears protein at a time when other natural foods are on the wane as the snow flies, are thought by some researchers to be important not only for 399 and cubs, as well as 399’s daughter, bear 610 and cubs, but all bruins now in the physiological state known as hyperphagia. During hyperphagia, bears are on a quest to eat as much food as possible and put on fat and body mass prior to denning in a few weeks.

Whether a female bear is well nourished or not can mean the difference between a bear becoming pregnant, successfully giving birth to cubs and even surviving long winters. 

While the reason for 399 heading south into unfamiliar territory with her cubs is not known—no human obviously has interviewed her—both ardent bear watchers and wildlife officials believe it probably has to do with her search for food. 

Photographer Thomas Mangelsen and others believe that 399 “is in pretty good shape physically” for this time of year but may be more harried having to look out for an extraordinarily large litter of cubs. (Some think she looks "skinny.")  In addition, observers have noticed that one cub appears to be exhibiting a slight limp in its gait  That 399 has kept her cubs well fed and ordinarily healthy is considered an impressive feat.

On Tuesday evening, just as the sun was descending the ursid clan crossed Moose-Wilson and that, again, was when the near collision occurred. Days earlier, their tracks were spotted on the other side of the Snake River in a residential subdivision and not far from where Wyoming Game and Fish has placed a trap to catch a black bear that was considered a nuisance.

Local bear watcher Ann Smith, who often serves as a nexus of information on 399 and clan, noted how the matriarch had been spotted near the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club along Spring Gulch Road last weekend and then showed up on the edge of the Teton Pines gated residential community on the other side of the Snake River. 

So concerned harm might befall the bears, Smith wrote in an email to several dozen Jackson Hole denizens.  "I cruised the Teton Village Road [Moose-Wilson] with my flashers on going 25 miles an hour in hope that people would slow down in case she crossed the road again." On Wednesday the bear was spotted variously along Fish Creek Road, then up Teton Pass and down Fall Creek Road.

For wildlife officials with Game & Fish who try to reduce human-bear conflicts, they say the fate of 399 and family could likely come down to the behavior of unsuspecting and well-meaning humans. Jackson-based game warden Jon Stephens says vigilance in being concerned for her welfare is good but it needs to be tempered.

“My take is that people need to give her space and not get so infatuated with seeing her and thinking they are looking after her, that they chase her down,” he told Mountain Journal Wednesday morning after 399 and crew were spotted near Wilson. “ It’s the mob mentality that has taken hold at many of the sites where’s she’s been observed and people seem to feed on it. One person might be 100 yards from her, and then the next person is 80, and people get closer and closer until they are where they shouldn’t be.  And that, obviously, is not exhibiting sound judgment.” 

Stevens reminds the public that 399 is a wild grizzly bear with cubs. During her life, she has learned to be tolerant of people but she is still protective of her offspring and needs space.  The best chances for a positive outcome—that the mother bruin heads back to Grand Teton and the Bridger-Teton Forest is that people allow her to follow her natural instinct and give her a wide berth to navigate. He also said that motorists, especially in evening and early morning need to drive with caution.
Never has a family of bears inspired more people and attracted a more devoted coterie of  wildlife watchers in Jackson Hole than the clan of grizzly 399. Here,  this past summer, the quartet of cubs crosses the busy highway in Grand Teton National Park.  Photo courtesy Sue Cedarholm
Never has a family of bears inspired more people and attracted a more devoted coterie of wildlife watchers in Jackson Hole than the clan of grizzly 399. Here, this past summer, the quartet of cubs crosses the busy highway in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy Sue Cedarholm
Given how fast information can travel in this digital age—instantaneously—citizens adhering to, and promoting responsible behavior is the best course of action for helping to insure her walkabout is a safer one, Stephens says.  

Regarding the availability of gut piles and carcasses left on the landscape as a result of hunting, he noted that hunter success in the north valley so far has been “par to perhaps subpar” meaning the usual bounty of edibles available to bears, up to this point, has been lower. 

“In one way, we’ve been spoiled here in Jackson. We’ve had unseasonably warm and dry weather. But the recent snow and cold conditions are helping to bring elk out of the mountains,” he said. 

For wildlife photographer Mangelsen, his own instincts suggest that 399, in the absence of the meat, has been following her nose. “I think she’s hungry,” he said after observing 399 Wednesday afternoon feasting on hawthorn berries near Wilson before the bears disappeared into what he called “a safer part of the landscape” yet still in the exurbs that stretch between the Tetons and the town of Jackson.  

Mangelsen noted that he’s seen 399 travel more than 35 miles in a single day and that she, like other bruins, have a remarkable homing instinct based upon their superior sense of smell. In years’ past when she’s had young cubs, 399 has headed to the den in late November or early December. The latest she’s stayed out before hibernation has been just past New Year’s Day. 

On Wednesday night, good news may have arrived, its veracity unconfirmed, when bear watchers say they might have spotted 399 and cubs more than a dozen miles from where Mangelsen had last seen her. Her new location: allegedly north of Teton Village and on the verge of re-entering Grand Teton Park—a certainly less menacing place for a grizzly with cubs than threading a needle through the heart of suburbia.

IMPORTANT UPDATE to story ending above: It was confirmed Thursday that 399 and cubs were not back up north near Grand Teton National Park. The bear clan was spotted south of the town of Jackson in the big area known as South Park. This is also a perilous place for the bears to be.  Please heed the advice of Wyoming Game and Fish Game Warden Jon Stephens and give the bears their space.

Nov. 3, 2020: As of this morning, 399 and cubs are still south of the town of Jackson and south of Wyoming Highway 22 between Jackson and the town of the Wilson. Roaming private land, they are, for now out of harm's way and are being nourished on berries and and elk gut piles. We are deliberately being vague about their location with the hope they will find a safe route north. However, still looming large is the start of Grand Teton National Park's annual and controversial "elk reduction program," essentially a big game hunt of wapiti. Although it yields plenty of gut piles, it also requires that hunters keep their wits about them and exercise exceedingly good judgment and awareness in griz country.


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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