Out of Bounds

Mama Bear Keeps on Keeping On

Griz 399 is a celebrity, and sometimes the rules for celebrities are different

By Rob Breeding

Grizzly 399 returned last month, emerging from her den on Pilgrim Creek near Grand Teton National Park with her cub.

It’s her second year with this chunk, named Spirit, who makes up in size what the cub lacks for siblings. There were four in 399’s previous brood when she became the most famous griz in the world. 

In 2023, when she emerged with Spirit, 399 added “oldest mama griz” in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem history to her resume. Now she has her own show, “Grizzly 399: Queen of the Tetons,” which premiered on Public Television’s “Nature” program last week.

I channel surfed onto the show and watched. I’m intrigued by that bear. All bears, really, but especially so for 399. She’s half my age, but I’ve had it pretty easy compared to her. Where I grew up there was a grocery down the street, and when I was raising my cubs we didn’t live in constant fear a male griz might murder them.

Biologists speculate it is the male grizzly’s tendency to kill the cubs of female bears so they will go into heat, allowing the male to mate with her, that led 399 to her unique cub-rearing approach of raising young bears close to humans. 

She long ago realized that in the backcountry her cubs were vulnerable to aggressive male bears. Along highways, however, and close to human development, the big males were too skittish to follow. 

But this strategy comes with unintended consequences. One of those is that 399 has become unusually habituated to humans, and that’s a trait she’s passed to her offspring. The hordes of photographers and bear-jam looky-loos who follow 399 about all summer don’t help, though I can’t blame folks for wanting to catch a glimpse of this famous bear. As much as I loathe tourons and their sometimes idiotic behavior around wildlife, I know it’s a thrill to catch sight of a grizzly bear, even for just a moment. Especially from a distance.

So it didn’t take much for me to want to watch, but it was the quotes in the preview that hooked me. 

First I heard from Chris Seervheen — by now maybe the bear biologist most familiar to folks in the Northern Rockies — lamenting the danger 399’s strategy presents.

“As a bear biologist, I’ll just kind of go, ugh,” Seervheen said. “Bears that get close to people lose their normal avoidance or fear response. This is good in a way because it allows them to live in places where there are people, but it also is risky.”

Next came Forest Service botanist Trevor Bloom, an energetic voice, but one newer to Northern Rockies bear management. Bloom admitted what we all knew: 399 gets a pass where other bears wouldn’t.

Later in the broadcast, we see footage of Jackson police escorting 399 and her cubs out of downtown Jackson, and Bloom’s quote is repeated.

“One-hundred percent,” he said. “Yeah. One-hundred percent she gets special treatment.”

I’m sure most of the viewing audience agreed with Bloom. Some surely rose and screamed, “That’s right! She’s the Queen of the Tetons! Our Queen!”

I was thinking something like that.

Griz 399 is a celebrity, and sometimes the rules for celebrities are different. But as much as I agree with the sentiment, there’s no place for sentimentality in wildlife management, especially large, carnivorous wildlife. Even bears as resilient as 399 get old and can no longer survive in the wild. 

Sadly, a bear’s final act is often marred by dangerous interactions as they scavenge food on the boundaries of human settlement. That outcome, leading to capture and euthanasia, would be a tragic ending to a remarkable life. When 399’s time comes, I hope it does so peacefully, when she dens up Pilgrim Creek one last time. 

We’ll know she’s gone because the following spring, 399 just won’t return.