The Clan of Matron Grizzly 399
Photo Credit: Tom Mangelsen
Driving along Jackson Lake, distracted by the spectacular view of the Tetons, you might see a dark shape from the corner of your eye. Your 10-year old son yells from the back seat, “Bear!” Then you see the grizzly accompanied by three dog-sized cubs. You watch in delight with your child as they amble through a sagebrush meadow. In the next year, and for years to come, he tells the story again and again. He speaks in school, to friends and family. “I saw grizzly bear 399 and her three cubs!” Excitedly he explains what he learned later from park rangers about how the bears live near humans in Jackson Hole and the Teton wilderness.
The celebrity grizzly bears of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are the highlight of many family vacations. These awesome sightings continue our ancient human relationship with Ursus arctos. They help our children discover a sense of wonder and curiosity about the miracle of the natural world. The lives of bears such as 399, the beloved grand dam of Jackson Hole, change our lives as we discover their world.
But, the tragic deaths of three of her offspring due to human carelessness or worse reveal how vulnerable grizzly bears are in actuality. Removal of federal endangered species protections could be disastrous for Yellowstone's grizzlies, as well as for us and our children.
Grizzly 399 and the Vulnerability of Grizzly Bears
Grizzly 399, named with a number by grizzly bear researchers, has lived her whole life near roads that wind through Grand Teton National Park. She has been seen and loved by thousands of people, garnering countless fans. She is now 21 years old. Grizzly 399 is ancient in bear years. She is reaching the end of her reproductive life. Everyone who has seen 399 with her cubs over the years has remarked what a great mom she is: ‘the quintessential mother with muffins in the oven.’
What has she to show for it? On one hand, 399 has given untold joy to all who have seen her in the flesh, and also to those who have seen the stunning photographs of her taken by people such as Tom Mangelson. (See book by Tom and Todd Wilkinson). But, she has done relatively little to boost the health of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population. During her life, she has replaced herself just once, through her daughter, likewise named with a number, 610.
Grizzly 399 was born in 1996. She has had four litters of cubs. Of the ten cubs born during her 20 years, thus far only four have survived. It is consistent with the prospects for virtually every grizzly bear female in Yellowstone. Only one of her cubs, 610, has produced offspring. This lack of reproductive success by 399 shows how challenging life is today for female grizzly bears. The truth is that grizzly bear birth rates are inherently low AND grizzlies are extremely vulnerable to the excesses of human killing.
Grizzly 615, a female cub birthed by 399 and later killed by a poacher, highlights the plight of Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Had 615 lived, she might have mothered additional cubs. But she didn’t.
People are Safer than Most Other Bears
Bears like 399 have made it their life strategy to seek roadsides and housing developments in order to avoid male bears who can eat their cubs. Males tend to be more wary of people. As a consequence, staying near people is a better bet for many female grizzly bears than mixing it up with potentially aggressive and deadly boars.
For the most part, people have been holding up their end of the bargain—at least inside National Parks. The public education work of Grand Teton Park’s Bear Brigade is extraordinary, and nearby Yellowstone is a similar success story (link).
Bears that seek the company of people are tolerant of us. At the same time, they do not see us as a source of food. Nor are they aggressive. According to former Grand Teton Park senior scientist Stephen Cain, “Science indicates that bears habituated to people are less likely to act aggressively towards people.”
To these bears, people are allies – even, at times, baby sitters. For thousands of years, Native peoples throughout the world have left us stories about human beings living side by side with bears, even being saved by bears. To watch our roadside bears is to realize their stature and magnificence, and the truth of many of these ancient tales left to keep our regard and relationship with the wild creatures of the world alive.
The Park Service’s roadside bear policy has not only created an ecological niche for bears such as 399, it has allowed an intimate reciprocity to flourish between people and bears. It is impossible not to see that 399 and her daughter are placing their trust and the fate of their cubs in us. They are asking us to overcome our fear and respond with grace.