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Grizzly Miracle: Grand Teton’s 399 Emerges with Quadruplets

by Louisa Willcox

Grand Teton’s matriarch, Grizzly 399, is perhaps the most famous grizzly bear alive. And she has recently performed a miracle, emerging with four new cubs! If there ever was a mom capable of commanding this tiny but vivacious army, it is the maestro mother, bear 399.

Her feat is remarkable for several reasons. For one, at the age of twenty-four, 399 is truly ancient. If 399 has not warranted a proper name before now, maybe Sarah is fitting, in reference to the biblical character who gave birth at 90.

But quadruplets? Among the rarities that can be seen in Yellowstone, a litter of grizzly bear quadruplets is right up there with an eruption of mercurial Steamboat geyser, the tallest of all. Indeed, only eight litters of quadruplets have been documented since 1983 in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Grizzly 399 has created magic once again -- and just in time.

To her fans, the sight of 399 and her new family transformed a season of tedium and anxiety into a time of celebration. After months of lockdown, the wonders of the natural world have seldom seemed so precious. Spring is bursting forth with a superabundance of wildflowers as seeming redemption for our social isolation, and as fitting welcome for an amazing bear whose life has enriched families from across the country who have been fortunate enough to see her.

What helped make Grizzly 399 so famous is her tolerance of people. She has also taught generations of cubs how to live amicably near roads and recreational areas. Her main reason for settling into these human-impacted environments is to keep her cubs safe from aggressive boars that often prefer to hang out in more remote areas. For her and other female grizzlies who frequent roadsides, staying near people is a better bet than mixing it up with boars that can and will kill cubs.

To these bears, people are allies – even, at times, babysitters. For thousands of years, Native Peoples throughout the world have left us stories about human beings living side by side with bears, saved by bears, even marrying bears. No wonder. We share so much with bears -- the ability to stand upright, eat the same foods, and nurture our offspring for extended periods of time. We are reminded of the challenges all moms face as we watch the placid 399 keeping track of her babies with their boundless curiosity, guiding them across streams, or teaching them the art of digging biscuitroot.

We know more about 399 than most grizzly bears because she has lived her life so close to us. (Tom Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson wrote a lovely book about her too). A successful and attentive mom, 399 is the quintessential mother with muffins in the oven. This is her sixth litter, of which three were triplets.

Thankfully, the Park Service embraces bears like 399. With the help of volunteers and rangers, Grand Teton and Yellowstone are doing their best to ensure that everybody, bears and humans, stays safe – through social distancing.

The Perils of an Olympian Mom

But when 399 steps outside the borders of the National Parks, she enters a much more dangerous world. On neighboring non-park land vital to the survival of these bears, policies are dictated by the state of Wyoming. Wildlife managers here have a far less inclusive view of grizzlies. Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) views large carnivores, not only as competitors for elk and moose that would otherwise be the source of hunting-license revenues, but also as little more than grist for the mill of sport hunting.

This cynical and transactional view of bears is rooted in various causes, including a deep-seated impulse to instrumentalize wildlife, a devotion to the ethos of hunting, and dependence for revenues on taxes from sales of arms and ammunition and sales of licenses to hunters.

Not surprisingly, after federal endangered species protections were stripped from Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017, Wyoming planned a sport hunt of grizzlies that would have allowed hunting right up to the borders of national parks. Fearing a public backlash if 399 were killed by a hunter, WGF reluctantly created a no-hunt buffer zone that barely encompassed her known range. But the zone did not include habitat used by her similarly unafraid offspring – or any other bears for that matter.

In September 2018, some hunters were already afield when a federal judge stopped the grizzly bear hunting season – just two days before it was scheduled to begin. Shortly afterwards, he restored endangered species protections to the Yellowstone grizzly population.

Hunting was not the only threat posed by delisting to 399’s clan. State managers said they also planned to haze or kill roadside bears. WGF’s large carnivore specialist, Dan Thompson, succinctly described the reason why: “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of.”

These regressive attitudes central to the culture of WGF underscore why federal protections are vital to 399 and her family. But even with safeguards provided by the ESA, grizzlies rarely die of natural causes. Roughly 80% of all the adolescent and adult grizzlies that die each year are killed by humans, according to government researchers.

We should never forget that the fate of grizzlies is in our hands. Nor should we forget the difference that one good mom can make, provided we let her and her kids live. The entire Yellowstone grizzly bear population could be built on as few as 50 fertile females alive during the early 1980’s. Every mom matters. And a female such as 399 is an Olympian.

But despite her competence as a mother, so far 399 has replaced herself just once with a female who has also had cubs: Grizzly 610. The reasons are pretty straight-forward. Grizzly bear birth rates are inherently low and many of 399’s offspring have been killed by humans.

I have spent years scrutinizing reports that describe grizzly bear deaths -- not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Most of the deaths look as if they could have been -- should have been -- avoided, a conclusion confirmed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among these are the tragic deaths of four of 399’s offspring. These deaths also illuminate some of the biggest threats to grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem: poaching, cars, livestock-related conflicts, and managers’ gaffs.

The Tale of Grizzly 615, Persistence

Grizzly 615, a daughter of 399’s, was diminutive and shy. And she assiduously avoided barbeques, birdfeeders, and the many human attractants in Jackson Hole. Dubbed “Persistence”, the one thing 615 could not persist was bullets at close range.

In 2009 she was shot illegally by Stephen Westmoreland as he was out hunting on National Forest land near Jackson. She was feeding on the remains of a moose that had been killed by another hunter and stood up to look at Westmoreland as he walked by about 40 yards away. He proceeded to shoot 615 repeatedly in the chest and abdomen, later claiming self-defense.

Astonishingly, this case went to trial – which almost never happens, especially in Wyoming.

A modicum of justice was done in that Westmoreland was convicted by his peers of poaching. But rather than being fined $10,000 and spending significant time behind bars -- all allowed for under the law -- he only paid a $500 fine and walked away, which speaks volumes about how grizzlies are valued in Wyoming’s legal system.

The Story of Grizzly 587: Of Bears and Cows

In 2013, Grizzly 587, a son of 399’s, was killed by WGF officials in the Upper Green River area east of Jackson because he had developed the habit of eating cows grazing on US Forest Service pastures. Notably, all of these cows were owned by local ranchers who benefit from cut-rate grazing fees heavily subsidized by tax-payer dollars. The Upper Green area is at the juncture of vast wilderness areas, yet it has become the ecosystem’s epicenter of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers.

Former Bridger-Teton National Forest biologist Timm Kaminski has called the Upper Green an “ecological trap” – a place that attracts bears and wolves because of an abundance of natural food and secure habitat, but where they end up being killed because relatively helpless cows are dumped on the landscape with little oversight. The heart of the problem here is not bears but rather human ignorance and resistance to change.

Many ranchers peacefully work out their differences with grizzly bears without much fanfare, often with the help of livestock guardian dogs, riders, electric fence, and commonsense husbandry practices. That is not the case in the Upper Green. The tool of choice among these wealthy ranchers seems to be the telephone. Calls to Wyoming’s governor and high-level administrators often succeed in pressuring wildlife managers to kill bears.