Playing Russian Roulette with Grizzly Matron 399 and the Bears of Yellowstone

Photo by Tom Mangelsen.

This is the first of a two-part essay on the famous bear matron of Jackson Hole, Grizzly 399, and the mounting threats she and other grizzlies face. Part 2 will focus on a path forward. You might also want to listen to a fascinating Grizzly Times podcast (2 episodes) with renowned photographer Tom Mangelsen, who waxes eloquent about his 15-year relationship with this special bear and his advocacy for the wild.

Few if any animals have been more celebrated than 399, the matron grizzly bear of Grand Teton National Park. Each year, families flock to Jackson Hole hoping to catch a glimpse of her shepherding her latest brood – now four irrepressible yearlings. Her grown-up daughter, Grizzly 610, accompanied by two pre-adolescent cubs now as large as she is, generates almost as much excitement. Today, about 10 grizzlies of 399’s lineage make their living along Jackson Hole’s roads in the company of people.

With a global fan club, Grizzly 399 is an ambassador for grizzlies everywhere. Her tolerance for people is legendary. To cross a road, she is known to look both ways before threading through parked cars and mobs of delighted onlookers, as doors slam and kids shriek – placidly returning to fetch a cub still wrestling with a road cone. Who could still cling to the myth that grizzlies are vicious man-eaters after beholding the ways of 399?

But as the fame of these roadside grizzlies had grown, so have the crowds. Current systems to keep visitors and grizzlies safe are breaking down. As summer tourist season begins with a vengeance, officials are often either nowhere to be seen — or they are firing projectiles at bears in a cruel, disorganized, and futile effort to haze grizzlies rather than manage people.

Not long ago 399 and her four youngsters were swarmed by 300 people – with no Park Ranger in sight. And 610, known as an especially protective mom, bluffed charged two tourists out of a mob of 150 who got too close. East of the park, 863 (aka “Felicia”) and her adorable new cubs face a tsunami of people, cracker shells fired by state managers, as well as semis barreling down the adjacent highway at 70 miles an hour.

Anywhere grizzlies are visible we are seeing scenes of bedlam and terrifying close calls – and tourist season has just begun. Last year, record numbers of people — throngs numbering as many as 1000 — gathered any time 399 or other roadside grizzlies appeared. The spectacle lasted from Memorial Day to New Year’s Day, when 399 broke trail for her youngsters through chest-deep snow to reach her den.

Caring citizens, most of them veteran photographers and wildlife watchers, are doing what they can to keep tourists from crowding Jackson Hole’s grizzlies. Last year these citizen volunteers saved the lives of 399, 610 and other grizzlies many times. So did Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Mike Boyce, who spent long days and nights trying to keep 399 safe as she ventured south of the town of Jackson onto private lands.

But these efforts are a drop in the bucket of a sea of need. This summer we can expect another valence shift in tourism as pent-up families seek beauty, solace and adventure in our National Parks. With ever more airlines servicing the Yellowstone and Grand Teton region, another record-breaking year of visitation is virtually guaranteed – and with it, more pressure on the region’s world-class wildlife.

When I asked veteran Jackson News and Guide reporter Mike Kosmrl what he thought this summer would bring for Grand Teton’s grizzlies, he offered one word: “chaos.”

This chaos surrounding 399 and her offspring highlights the threats posed by so many people, compounded by long-neglected deficiencies in grizzly bear management. Courageous government action is urgently needed – on behalf of not just grizzlies, but also on behalf of the multitudes who care about these wild animals.

Grizzly 399’s Unique Strategy: Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Grizzly 399 makes her living near people, teaching generations of cubs how to live amicably along roads and around recreation areas. Her main reason for settling into these human-impacted environments is to keep her cubs safe from aggressive male grizzlies—known as 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 who can and will kill cubs. Every day, these females and their offspring literally depend on the kindness of strangers, to borrow from Blanche Dubois’ famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire.

To these grizzlies, people are allies – even, at times, babysitters. This should not surprise us given the stories told for millennia by Native Peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere about humans living among bears, saved by bears, even marrying bears.

We know more about 399 than most grizzly bears because she has lived her long life so close to us. Tom Mangelsen, a world-famous photographer, has photo-documented his 15-year relationship with this special bear, co-writing a lovely book about her.

A successful and attentive mom, 399 is the quintessential mother with muffins in the oven. She birthed and successfully raised three sets of triplets. And last year, she performed a miracle when she emerged with quadruplets at the age of twenty-four – ancient for a mother bear. Her feat is especially noteworthy given that only eight litters of quadruplets have been documented in the Yellowstone ecosystem since 1983.

We cannot forget the difference that one good mom can make. All existing Yellowstone grizzly bears are the decedents of perhaps only 50 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 raised only two females who have also had cubs, Grizzlies 610 and 962, the latter just appearing with a new cub. The reasons are straight-forward. Grizzly bear birth rates are inherently low and many of 399’s offspring have been killed by humans.

But humans can be benevolent. There is no doubt that 399 would not still be with us were it not for the dedication of the Park Service. Indeed, a past superintendent of Grand Teton Park, Mary Scott, spared 399’s life when, as a young mom with cubs, she mauled a jogger who came too close as she fed upon a dead elk. Since then, with the help of volunteers who comprise its Bear Brigade, Grand Teton Park has tried to ensure that everybody — bears and humans — stays safe.

But the crush of park visitors is overwhelming agency capacity. Despite clear warning signs that this year would see record tourism, government agencies are again on their back heel. They have also failed to adapt to the tangible impacts of a warming climate, which is prompting bears to be up long before the Brigade is typically assembled and long after it disbands for the season.

Moreover, when 399 steps outside the borders of the National Parks, she enters a more dangerous world.

The Perils of an Olympian Mom

Much of 399’s home range lies outside the protected landscapes of Grand Teton Park. She dens and forages on Bridger Teton National Forest lands that abut the park. The Forest is a deadlier environment because it is managed for “multiple use,” meaning mostly for the benefit of hunters, ranchers, off-road vehicle users and increasingly, mountain bikers. Not surprisingly, one of 399’s cubs, Grizzly 587, was killed by managers after depredating cows on a Forest Service grazing allotment, where notoriously anti-grizzly ranchers dominate management of public lands that are ostensibly owned by all citizens.

399 must also dodge poachers who often are undeterred by the hefty penalties that can be levied under the Endangered Species Act — but too often are not. Indeed, one of her daughters, Grizzly 615, aka Persistence, was gunned down illegally as she ate a moose carcass on National Forest land close to the Park border.

She and other bears such as Grizzly 863 must also avoid being splattered on the roads as trucks and tourists speed to their next destination. And even inside Grand Teton Park, roads are dangerous. Two of 399’s cubs have been killed by vehicle collisions.

399 must, moreover, navigate private lands, dogs, compost piles, beehives, garbage and more. Even in Jackson, where wildlife is abundant, too many people still unthinkingly contribute to destroying bears by poorly managing food and garbage. One woman has continued to feed grizzlies and other wildlife despite government efforts to dissuade her. The results are predictable. One of 399’s cubs, Grizzly 964, developed such a bad garbage habit that she was relocated last summer to the north end of the ecosystem.

And now 399 and other roadside bears must dodge projectiles fired from shotguns, part of an ill-conceived, haphazard and doomed effort by the Park Service to haze her and other grizzlies away from the roadside environment they depend on.

Of Riot Control and Half Measures

With the Park Service understaffed and its Bear Brigade not fully assembled, the agency is floundering to deal with crowds gathering long before Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff date for summer tourist season. But instead of expanding its program and more aggressively managing the people, government officials are taking out their anxiety on innocent bears by shooting them with rubber bullets and rock salt or dosing them with bear spray when they near roads. The effort is erratic and disorganized, with contradictory messages to the public about what the agency is doing and why. (The Park Service did not respond to an interview request by deadline).

Such riot control tactics will fail, even as they harm the bears. Roadside females are more terrified of male bears in the backcountry that might eat their cubs than they are of the poorly implemented and ill-thought-out hazing efforts. Grizzlies such as 399 and 610 have long relied on limited roadside habitats and cannot—more importantly will not—just pick up and relocate.

Many roadside bears would rather suffer the punishment of rubber bullets, no matter how severe, than mix it up with aggressive bears that can be a mortal threat. Proving this point, years ago one black bear was actually bludgeoned to death by rubber bullets while cowering along a narrow strip of habitat along a road in Yellowstone Park. And hazing is deeply stressful and confusing to the animals. As anyone who has trained or rescued a dog knows well, stress and fear can make animals more unpredictable and aggressive towards people.

Furthermore, an effective hazing program is extraordinarily difficult to implement. Negative experiences need to be unrelenting and consistent if bears are to learn to avoid specific environs such as roadsides. Execution of such a program requires resources, discipline, and skill on the part of managers—something that has never been achieved before. Without this mix of ingredients, hazing programs devolve into little more than the gratuitous infliction of pain on targeted bears. And bears are intelligent, which makes the job even harder. In Yellowstone, grizzlies targeted for hazing quickly learned to disappear when the green Park Service trucks arrived and return to the roadsides when they left.

The Park Service is hardly the only agency failing these bears and the broader public who care about their well-being. Others with authority over grizzlies include the state of Wyoming, Bridger Teton National Forest, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Department of Transportation, and Teton County.

Importantly, the state of Wyoming dictates wildlife management on nonpark lands. State managers have long been hostile towards large predators such as grizzlies, seen as competitors for elk and moose. In the zero-sum calculous of state managers, any elk or moose killed by a predator translates into lost hunting-license revenues. As problematic, those predators that managers do allow to live are seen as little more than grist for the mill of trophy hunting. It is no surprise that state managers resent celebrity roadside grizzlies because, beloved by nonhunters, these bears represent an alien and even existential threat.

The fundamentally antagonistic view of Wyoming Game and Fish towards these bears and their fans has been on full display on Togwotee Pass in recent days, where officials are exploding cracker shells at Felicia and her newborns and imposing erratic constraints on viewers. (Wyoming Game and Fish did not respond to an interview request by deadline). Wyoming Game and Fish large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson, who is in charge of these efforts, made his view clear several years ago, saying: “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of.”

Gutted by budget cuts, the Bridger Teton Forest is also ill-equipped to manage mounting numbers of recreational users on forest lands near Grand Teton Park, even as the agency continues to shirk its legal duty to conserve wildlife. Similarly, Teton County has struggled to ensure meaningful sanitation on private lands. And Wyoming Department of Transportation has done precious little to improve safe passage for wildlife, in contrast to successful systems of overpasses and underpasses built in Montana’s Flathead Valley and in Canada’s National Parks.

But the agency with the clearest legal authority to help these bears is the one that is most conspicuously absent: the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The Endangered Species Act charges FWS with recovering threatened species, using the best available science in decision-making, and ensuring that federal and state agencies take a precautionary approach in decisions affecting protected species. Despite this duty, the FWS has done little lately other than sanction the killing and relocating of grizzlies that are increasingly deemed to be “surplus” by FWS managers.

Thankfully, citizen volunteers have been stepping into the breach.

Into the Breach

In recent years, concerned citizens, most of them photographers, have been helping manage tourists at often understaffed wildlife jams – and they are up to their eyeballs this spring. Too numerous to count, citizens routinely step in to slow traffic and keep tourists from getting too close, literally saving not only people who are careless, but also the lives of roadside bears. Any time a person gets injured, the involved bear almost invariably pays the ultimate price.

Recognizing the scale of the need, last winter, photographers Jack and Gina Bayles created Team 399 to raise money through donations and the sale of merchandise to help support Grand Teton Park’s Wildlife Brigade, through the Park’s nonprofit arm, Grand Teton Park Foundation. They are hoping that contributions from these bears’ enormous social media following can be channeled into work to help keep them safe.

This summer Team 399 is also partnering with Friends of the Bridger Teton National Forest, the nonprofit private adjunct of the Forest, to sponsor additional seasonal staff to help educate and manage roadside throngs of bear-watchers in Felicia’s haunts along Highway 287 on Togwotee Pass. After a successful foray last year, Friends of the Bridger Teton has again hired two roadside bear ambassadors to help manage viewers along this hazardous stretch of highway.

Meanwhile, other local organizations are engaged in complementary work. The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is working with Wyoming Department of Transportation to improve signage along area roads. Greater Yellowstone Coalition has been working with the Bridger Teton Forest to increase the number of bear-resistant storage boxes at campsites. Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Wyoming Untrapped and Cougar Fund work to raise awareness of the value of large carnivores, especially grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions. And Friends of 760, named for a grandson of 399 who was killed as a result of government bungling, is working to make sure similar mistakes do not happen again.

But while citizens and nonprofit groups can help immeasurably, they lack legal authority and anything close to adequate resources to tackle the crisis facing grizzlies around Jackson. The government must step in — immediately and in a much bigger way — on behalf of the public trust and threatened grizzlies that will always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Part 2 outlines a path forward to ensure that 399 and the other grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone flourish.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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