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Premiere of the Queen

Grizzly 399 is the most famous bear in the world. The new film, 399: Queen of the Tetons, makes its world premiere at Missoula’s Documentary Film Festival on Feb. 16

In 2020, world-famous Grizzly 399 emerged from hibernation with four cubs, astounding her fans and wildlife biologists alike. She was 25 years old. This image graces the cover of Thomas Mangelsen's new book, "Grizzly 399: The World's Most Famous Mother Bear." Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
In 2020, world-famous Grizzly 399 emerged from hibernation with four cubs, astounding her fans and wildlife biologists alike. She was 25 years old. This image graces the cover of Thomas Mangelsen's new book, "Grizzly 399: The World's Most Famous Mother Bear." Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
by Laura Lundquist

She’s beautiful. She’s prolific. But most of all, she’s highly intelligent.

It’s not surprising to hear a celebrity described in those terms. Unless that celebrity is a grizzly bear. However, almost everyone who’s seen her agrees that 399, the matriarch of Grand Teton National Park, is far from an ordinary bear.

No ordinary bear would have her own documentary. She now stars in 399: Queen of the Tetons, which will give the world a lens through which to see just how extraordinary she is. Some, including film director-producer Elizabeth Leiter, hope the film can raise more awareness of the strength and the vulnerability of 399 and, by extension, all grizzly bears. But a few worry that some people will assume all bears are or can be like 399, which could put both bears and people in danger.

“I think humans often fight a lot about what’s the best way to do this or that, in terms of protecting grizzlies or delisting or climate change … but we’re so interconnected with [grizzly bears], we ought to take a few cues,” Leiter said, referencing 399. “If she’s struggling, we’re actually struggling. If she’s struggling to feed
Elizabeth Leiter, director of "399: Queen of the Tetons"
Elizabeth Leiter, director of "399: Queen of the Tetons"
her young, we’re next. If we’re going to take resilience from her story, that she’s beating the odds, then we ought to think about how we can support her being that resilient.”

On Friday night, February 16, Leiter’s documentary will have its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. Rachel Gregg, the festival’s executive director, said her staff chose 399: Queen of the Tetons for the opening night of the festival because, with its wildlife and conservation message, “it’s a film Missoula is particularly interested in.” That was proven two weeks ago, when Missoulians filled the Wilma Theater to capacity, eager to see another grizzly bear film focused on 399, Return of the Grizzly, which also screened at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, Wyoming, on February 6.

“Some of the stories around this particular bear are relevant to increasing concerns about human interaction with wildlife, what that means for society, how we make rules, and how we protect the animals while doing what we can to help people who come in contact with animals which, of course, is helpful from a conservation standpoint, but can also be very challenging,” Gregg said. “It’s starting conversations in a way we think is really important, which was one reason we thought it was super timely to open with a film like this and make sure people come and see it.”

The documentary is Leiter’s first foray into wildlife filmmaking, after developing her visual chops producing television content for PBS, National Geographic, CNN and VICE. Her directorial debut took place in 2018 with her Frontline film, The Abortion Divide. The second film she directed highlighted the advocacy work of Jane Goodall, from the time Goodall left her chimpanzee research in Tanzania, Africa, through today. Released in 2020, Jane Goodall: The Hope was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Nature Documentary.
“I think humans often fight a lot about what’s the best way to do this or that, in terms of protecting grizzlies or delisting or climate change … but we’re so interconnected with [grizzly bears], we ought to take a few cues.” – Elizabeth Leiter, Director, 399: Queen of the Tetons
But on a fateful evening in 2019, while still filming Jane Goodall, Leiter got to talking with one of Goodall’s friends, wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen. She hadn’t thought about her next film, but by the time the evening was over, the subject was set.

“If you’ve ever spoke with Tom for longer than five minutes, you know about 399. She’s the love of his life, a self-described obsession of his,” Leiter said. “The way he talks about her is so passionate and so intense and with so much admiration of her that it became clear there was something interesting here.”

So began almost two years of not just filming 399 and people in the Jackson area but also combing through an archive of millions of photos and videos taken by people who have revered the bear for more than two decades. At first, Leiter wasn’t quite sure what the story should be. When she first Googled Grizzly 399, Leiter was stunned that a bear could have become such a local celebrity and developed such a fan club. Should the documentary cover 399’s whole life? She watched video after video, inspired by the footage but somewhat overwhelmed by having to decide what to use in the film and what to leave out.
“The amount of effort that’s gone into keeping that bear and her young alive is extraordinary. If we had to do that with every bear, there’d be hundreds of bear managers out there.” – Chris Servheen, former Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
But 2020 was a big year for 399. That spring, she emerged from hibernation with four cubs, an unusually large family, especially for a 25-year-old sow. It turned out, if any bear could keep all of them safe in a risky world made riskier by people, 399 could. So that became Leiter’s focus: two years with 399 and her quadruplets. And those happened to be two crucial years.

“Things were starting to happen around her. In 2021, three of her cubs were darted, caged and collared. So it can’t just be a sweet, little story, because dark stuff is happening to her,” Leiter said. “So there’s this subtext of ‘this is really going to be an uphill battle.’ Within that broader structure, we explore other parts of her life—meeting Tom Mangelsen and the mauling incident that happened in 2007—and her behavior with these [four cubs] as an exploration of her relationship with humans and our relationship to her, and even more broadly, our relationship with nature.”
"Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek" was Mangelsen's first book about famed Grizzly 399. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen
"Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek" was Mangelsen's first book about famed Grizzly 399. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen
Many of the humans in the film are bear paparazzi, photographers who spend hours, days and weeks cruising Grand Teton National Park’s roads to get a glimpse and hopefully a photo of the famous bear. Like Mangelsen, many are obsessed with following 399, and their stories appealed to film festival staff.

“The film follows the work of the photographers. Actually being behind the scenes and seeing that experience was very interesting and different,” Gregg said. “We’re getting to follow their work and understand what inspires them, what their challenges are, what circumstances they need to be in to capture that image. And then, of course, the more gray areas about what they’re hoping people see as the result of their work, what they’re hoping they understand.”

Leiter herself got a taste of what it takes to be a 399 fan-club member, spending three weeks in April 2021 parked along the road in Grand Teton Park waiting with everyone else for 399 to emerge. As the late-winter days dragged on, some without a glimpse of even a bird, her dedication began to falter.
2020 was a big year for 399. That spring, she emerged from hibernation with four cubs, an unusually large family, especially for a 25-year-old sow.
“Then, I was so lucky to be there when she actually emerged,” Leiter said. “Glad I was still sitting there. Not only to see her and the cubs—you know, they’re brown and beautiful against the white snow, just stunning—but also to see the joy within that community that day: the bear lovers and photographers. That might be one of my favorite scenes of the film. It has a lot of heart in that moment. It was like a grand entrance.”

But as adoring as they are, the photographers and tourists who love 399 are unknowingly part of her problem. They might see less of her if she wasn’t such a good mother. But 399 hangs out near roads because it’s safer for her cubs than in the backcountry, where they could be killed by male grizzlies. Safety, however, is relative. The bear-jams that seethe around 399 have habituated her as well as her cubs, made them too relaxed around people, according to Chris Servheen, former grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If she weren’t such an extraordinary bear, she could have gotten in trouble with people years ago.

Servheen, who worked for the Wildlife Service for 35 years, credits the Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade—wildlife managers who are really people managers—with keeping people and bears separated and safe in the park. Even outside Grand Teton, he knows it was a team of bear managers that shepherded 399 and her cubs as they padded through the middle of Jackson one night in November 2021. So he was dismayed when photographers berate bear managers in the film for trapping and collaring bears. What speaks to film reviewers doesn’t necessarily play well to biologists.

“The bear managers are trying to keep these bears alive, and they’re trying to deal with this situation where they’ve got with this super-habituated bear walking in and around people,” Servheen said. “The amount of effort that’s gone into keeping that bear and her young alive is extraordinary. If we had to do that with every bear, there’d be hundreds of bear managers out there.”

Servheen makes a brief appearance in the documentary but said he spent six hours talking to Leiter and her crew as they drove around Jackson. Most of that apparently landed on the cutting-room floor.

The grizzly bear expert told Leiter then that other bears, including some of 399’s offspring, become food conditioned if they get food rewards from human trash bins, pet food dishes or bird feeders. Then they start looking for human-use areas because they think they’ll find food, and if they’re used to being around people, they become even bolder. It can be worse if it’s a young bear, because just like human teenagers, they explore things they shouldn’t and maybe have learned some bad habits without the benefit of experience. They pose a threat to human safety so repeat offenders are often euthanized. A fed bear is a dead bear, as they say. But not 399.

“I’ll give her credit,” Servheen said. “She was fed on a person’s deck but she didn’t continue to come back to that deck or any of the decks nearby. She never really broke through that point of hanging around people all the time. We see that regularly with other bears. In that way, she’s unique. She’s been successful at getting human foods and then not continually camping on top of humans.”

It’s never easy to tell a complicated story. Difficult choices must be made of what to keep and what to leave out, and some will question those decisions. But Leiter said she learned from Yale University ecologist Susan Clark that 399 doesn’t have a story; she has a life. So Leiter chose scenes that provide an intimate look into the life of 399.

“The story is more about what humans create around her,” Leiter said. “She required me to think deeper and harder about almost every element that touches her life. So I hope I’ve done her justice by trying to respect her lived life and explore what her story means to humans, and why that matters.”


399: Queen of the Tetons debuts in its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 16. Visit bigskyfilmfest.org for more information.

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Laura Lundquist
About Laura Lundquist

Laura Lundquist earned a journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2010, and has since covered the environmental beat for newspapers in Twin Falls, Idaho and Bozeman, in addition to a year of court reporting in Hamilton. She's now a freelance environmental reporter with the Missoula Current Online Journal.
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