Grizzly 399, Queen of the Tetons
When a grizzly bear appears in Wyoming's Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park, traffic comes to a grinding halt. Hundreds of cars get stuck in a traffic jam that can go on for miles - adequately called a bear jam - and everyone's heart rate goes up in the hopes of spotting this legendary predator. Seeing a wild grizzly is the highlight of many family vacations.
Among the estimated 730 grizzlies that live in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, one has become nothing less than an international celebrity: a bear identified as "399", otherwise known as the Queen of the Tetons.
399 photographed in the spring of 2020
399 was born in the winter of 1996 and turned 24 this year. Seeing that grizzlies have an estimated life span in the wild of up to 25 years, she's no spring chicken. The bigger the surprise when, after a long and brutal winter during which the area received 11 feet of snow and temperatures dipped down to minus 25 F (minus 31 C), she emerged from her den this spring with no less than four new cubs in tow! An impressive feat seeing that the oldest known grizzly in the area to have cubs was only a few years older at the time (27 years old), and, the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has never seen a litter of four at 399's age.
Whereas a typical grizzly chooses to live its life in the back country, far away from human activity, 399 has chosen to spend at least part of her life being close to humans. Some believe this is a deliberate strategy to keep her cubs safe: 399, like some other grizzly sows in the area, raises her cubs near roadsides and developed areas to keep them safe from male grizzlies, who are known to kill cubs. Male grizzlies ("boars") kill cubs in order for the grizzly sow to stop lactating and go back into reproduction mode. That relative easy visibility near park roads makes her and similar bears nothing less than tourist and photographer magnets.
399's four cubs in the spring of 2020
In her life span so far, she is believed to have produced at least 22 descendants, including the cubs that her offspring have birthed over the years. That's impressive were it not that this isn't as rosy as it sounds. About half of her offspring is believed dead. There is the sad story of her daughter, grizzly 615, who was shot by a poacher. Some have been killed by cars, like her only 2016 cub, "snowy." Others still are believed to have been killed by male grizzlies. Did you know that an estimated 85% of grizzlies never make it to 399's age? All of this to say that life isn't easy and guaranteed, even when you're at the top of the food chain in the animal kingdom.
Her most famous offspring and the only one of her offspring who in turn has produced cubs, a grizzly sow identified by the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team as 610, is also regularly seen in Grand Teton National Park. Born as one of 399's triplets in 2006, grizzly 610 is currently caring for two yearling cubs and, as if in a fairy tale, is actually close to her mother. In June of 2020, 399 with her four cubs and 610 with her two cubs were seen meeting each other in Grand Teton National Park. Contrary to popular beliefs that grizzly sows with cubs are aggressive towards other adult bears, both bears recognized each other and the six cubs even played together! In fact, back in 2011, when 399 had triplets and 610 had twins, 610 willingly adopted one of her mother's cubs: 610 ended up raising triplets while 399 raised her two remaining cubs!
399 photographed at sunset against the backdrop of the Tetons
That things occasionally get crazy during a bear jam, you may have read in a previous post. We all love to experience the bears (and other wildlife) but some of us seem to forget at times that these are in fact wild animals and that the National Park is not a petting zoo.
To keep everyone safe, since 2007, Grand Teton National Park enrolls a special group of volunteers called the "Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade". In fact, it was due to the popularity of grizzly 399 emerging from her den with three cubs back in 2007 that the brigade was formed. Their mission is to keep the wildlife and the tourists safe, for example, by enforcing the minimum required distance of 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from the park's other animals. When talking to some of these volunteers, it becomes clear that managing the wildlife isn't the problem ... it's managing the people.
One of 399's cubs in wild flowers
Grizzly 399, estimated to be weighing in at 350 pounds and standing 7 feet tall on her hind legs, has had one close encounter with a visitor so far. Or at least, one during which she made contact; little doubt she has had other surprise encounters with (sometimes reckless) visitors. Back in 2007, a school teacher set out on a walk near Jackson Lake Lodge in the park and inadvertently surprised 399 and her cubs while they were feeding on an elk carcass. 399 charged and bit the teacher before retreating. Luckily, 399 was spared because she acted as nature intended in defense of her cubs.
Shortly after 399 killed an elk calf in Grand Teton National Park in the spring of 2020, the elk cow returned to where she had left her calf.
The elk approached while calling out for her calf. A heartbreaking (but necessary) moment in nature.
As you can read in my earlier article on grizzlies in the Tetons (published by publication Destination:Wildlife in 2019), the future is by no means guaranteed for these extraordinary creatures. Other than the 'regular' dangers, like collisions with cars, running into trouble in human neighborhoods or violent encounters with other bears, there is the ever looming threat of trophy hunters getting their way in turning these magnificent bears into a wall ornament or a living room rug. The harsh reality is that, were it not for one judge who halted the trophy hunt recently, 399 and other celebrity bears may well have ended up dead by now. Rumor has it that trophy hunters are ready to target 399 as 'the ultimate trophy' ... Remember Cecil the lion?
With the millions of dollars streaming into the coffers of the state of Wyoming thanks to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, a substantial part due to the popularity of the grizzlies, I find it mind boggling why the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission voted unanimously to approve the grizzly hunt. A stark reminder for all of us to choose wisely when it comes to elected officials (as the Commission is appointed by the governor): go further than simply asking which candidate is red, blue or independent, our wildlife will be grateful.
399 photographed in 2020
Is the 'joy' of one trophy hunter (and the measly hunting license fee) really equal to the countless hours of joy that a bear like 399 provides to millions of park visitors annually, not to mention the economic impact those millions of visitors provide to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem?
For now, all is well. As thousands of park visitors hope to catch a glimpse of her and her four oh so cute cubs, 399 continues her life, not knowing that her plight is being followed by millions around the world. And that her life, even after she will be long gone, will continue to play a big part in protecting grizzly bears from senseless human politics forevermore.
Two of 399's four cubs in 2020
399 and one of her four cubs in 2020