WyoFile by Mike Koshmrl

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK — Two of the beloved, embattled grizzly bear cubs took the lead, pushing down through the still-snowy flank of Signal Mountain ahead of their famous mother, grizzly bear 399. 

The grizzlies — five, in all — poked through the timber at 8:42 a.m., ambling across Teton Park Road and proceeding down to the receded shoreline of Jackson Lake. They came through the trees less than 100 yards from where Tom Mangelsen expected. The 76-year-old Jackson Hole photographer has practice patterning the movements of the 26-year-old matriarch bruin of Grand Teton National Park, a bear he’s tracked since she started raising her litters roadside in 2006. He also knew where to head for the shot.

“They’ll go this way,” Mangelsen said. He flipped a U-turn in his Ford SUV, pointed toward Jackson Lake Dam, and eased to a stop where the grizzlies, framed by the Teton Range, padded down the snowy shoreline in view of a roadside pullout. 

Longtime Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, who owns the Images of Nature gallery, lines up a shot of grizzly bear 399 and her four cubs. The veteran photographer has documented the famous grizzly sow for the past 16 years. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Mangelsen and a handful of fortuitous fellow photographers were silent, save for the clicking of camera shutters. But word spread quickly.

Within a few minutes, a caravan of photographer-filled vehicles that had been staged nearby rolled into view. Soon there was a frenzy: scores of photographers and tourists jostling for a close look. 

Tyler Brasington, a Grand Teton bear management ranger who waited at the dam, had experience with “bear jams” here. He predicted the swelling crowd would next glimpse the grizzlies near “John’s Pond,” just above the dam. 

“They’ve come through there before,” Brasington said of the bears. “That’s a very difficult area to manage a jam, just because there’s no place for people to pull off.” 

Less than a minute later, the five grizzlies ascended from the lake, crossing the road exactly where the ranger predicted. 

“We can all stop right here,” Brasington told frantic photographers and grizzly-watching passersby. 

A few folks momentarily heeded the guidance. But most proceeded onward, following five grizzly bears. For the next hour the crowd kept growing, cameras clicking and memories amassing as the fivesome swam the Snake River and the cubs dutifully played their parts: adolescent, charismatic animals, wrestling in view of the highway. 

Grand Teton National Park bear management ranger Tyler Brasington keeps watch on a growing crowd that lined Jackson Lake Dam on May 4, 2022 in anticipation of bear 399’s arrival. Word had spread the 26-year-old bear and her four cubs were on the move, headed toward the impoundment. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Those same youngsters, accustomed to admiring throngs and adept at putting on a show, will very soon arrive at a perilous crossroads. Turn toward the unfamiliar remote expanses of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the up and comers might just carve out a living. But if they choose, instead, to stay on the path that runs near humanity, they’ll likely be caught and killed.

Soon to split

Wednesday’s sighting might be one of the last times bear 399 and her cubs are visible together as a family unit.  

“They’ll still potentially be traveling together for another week or two,” said Dan Thompson, who oversees large carnivore management at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Anytime between now and June, when breeding starts, she’ll really kick those 2-year-olds out.” 

Once that happens, the independent subadult grizzlies will be on their own, facing a number of factors stacked against them. 

Wildlife managers have been clear: the subadults will lose the special treatment afforded to their mother, the subject of an intensive around-the-clock surveillance and conflict-reduction operation during 2021, a year when the famous sow spent more time on private land than within the protective borders of Teton Park. Due to their upbringing in a national park that attracts 4 million-plus visitors each year, the subadult bears also lack a fear of humans. Worsening their prospects, the youngsters know to associate ranches and residential yards with food, the result of deliberate wildlife feeding and unsecured livestock feed and apiaries the famous brood of bears managed to get into. 

To the joy of many onlookers, two of bear 399’s four cubs squared off in a meadow visible from Teton Park Road on May 4, 2022. (Tom Knauss/Courtesy)

In short, after a lifetime being conditioned to misbehave, the bears will be suddenly subject to a wildlife management regime that is more prone to kill problem grizzlies than to relocate them. 

“It would be tough to relocate them successfully,” Thompson said. “The only other option is, they would likely be [killed].” 

That jibes with the long-term trend. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately calls the shots on what becomes federally threatened grizzly bears, but the Wyoming Game and Fish Department makes recommendations about their fates, and lays out the numbers on captures, relocations and removals in annual reports. A decade of data in those reports show that the number of grizzlies captured has been stagnant, at approximately 40 animals annually. But the agencies have generally moved away from relocating bruins that do get trapped. Between 2012 and 2016, 34% of trapped grizzlies were killed, according to WyoFile’s calculations made from agency data. But in the five years since, fatal outcomes were more likely: 55% of captured grizzlies were put down. 

“We’re learning from our management actions in the past,” Thompson said. “With the potential and amount of human injuries, and worse, we’ve had the past several years, we’re just very reluctant to move a bear involved in a conflict, especially after October, but even into September.” 

The reason fewer bears are being relocated during hunting season, Thompson explained, is public pressure. There’s “no data,” he said, that suggests a moved grizzly is more dangerous to people or less likely to survive in its new environment. 

“It’s just not tolerated anymore by the public,” Thompson said. 

Wyoming Game and Fish intends to take the lead in managing bear 399 and her offspring if and when those bears depart Teton Park this year, together or independently. That’s a departure from 2021, when the state agency pulled back its on-the-ground management during the family group’s extended stay in southern Jackson Hole. The federal government dispatched its own wildlife officials instead, running up a big bill in the process, according to Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley. 

“We spent $60,000 last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson,” Cooley said. “We can’t do that, and we shouldn’t. We’ve got 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states.”

Calls for a different tack 

Ardent 399 admirers feel otherwise. The extraordinary sow — the oldest-known female with cubs alive today in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — is widely considered an ambassador of her species, and she’s a force attracting legions of tourists who bolster the local economy. Fans argue that the famous bear, her progeny and other habituated, roadside grizzlies do deserve continued special treatment. 

“The bears are the draw, in my opinion,” Rochester, New York photographer Tom Knauss said from the road shoulder Wednesday. “The peaks are nice and all that, but people come to see the bears — they really do.” 

“To euthanize them,” he said, “would be a big mistake.” 

Knauss called for the Park Service to “rethink” what it takes to keep bears with 399’s bloodlines alive. Officials could strategically place road-killed ungulate carcasses in the national park, he said, to dissuade their departure. That’s an idea his partner, Ricki Swanson, thought was wise. 

“We feed the damn elk on the [National Elk Refuge] to keep them out of town,” Swanson said. “All the things they say they can’t do because it’s not natural, they’re already doing.” 

Knauss and Swanson were not ready to write bear 399’s four 2-year-olds off, but other roadside spectators took a dimmer view of the youngsters’ prospects. 

Roadside grizzlies should be managed to preserve viewing opportunities for the public, Alpine resident Walt Ackerman said. “They should be considered golden ambassadors of their species,” he said, “and that should transcend boundaries and transcend agencies.” 

Griz shaking after swimming across the Snake River, one of bear 399’s subadult offspring shakes off excess water on May 4, 2022. (Mark Gocke/Courtesy)

He recognized that’s not the reality, however.

“They’re doomed,” Ackerman said of the subadults. “And the reason they’re doomed is because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the park — and this is my opinion — has made it obvious that they’re trying to kill the next generation of roadside bears.” 

Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team data suggests that bear 399 descendents, which learn to tolerate people, fare poorly relative to most grizzlies, Thompson said. Research focused on the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s grizzlies shows that survival increases steadily with age: 61% of cubs survive their first year out of the den, while 68% of yearlings monitored make it through year two. By the subadult life stage, annual survival rates spike to 85% and some 95% of adult grizzlies survive any given year, according to the research.

A study team “parentage analysis” suggests there are “16 to 17” individuals that are “known or likely offspring” of bear 399, not counting her current litter, Thompson said. Of those bears, five were captured and killed as a result of conflict — most recently, Grizzly 962, a 4-year-old female from world-famous sow’s previous litter. Two more bear 399 cubs were killed by vehicle strikes. “One to two” more died from undetermined natural causes, he said. 

Only four of 399’s known offspring that have been captured — less than a quarter — have no known conflict history, Thompson said. Four more were captured and relocated as a result of conflict. Three of those bears whereabouts are unknown, he said, and the fourth, a female from the same litter as 962, is now a problem bear that’s frequenting residential areas in Red Lodge, Montana. 

“What’s going on [with 399], it’s not a good scenario for her and for other bears,” Thompson said. “Having grizzlies walking through downtown Jackson doesn’t help grizzly bears as a whole.” 

Cause for optimism

Red Top Meadows resident Cindy Campbell, a longtime grizzly bear activist, said she’s focusing her energy on the silver linings of the bear 399 clan’s wanderings. The five-grizzly family, she pointed out, more or less beelined it for ranchland in southern Jackson Hole after emerging from the den over Easter weekend. There were no reports, she said and Thompson confirmed, of the grizzlies getting into human-related foods. 

“Let’s celebrate small victories,” Campbell said. “Maybe it’s not so small that her and her family just spent however many days in the [southern] Jackson Hole valley with zero conflicts.” 

Two of bear 399’s 2-year-old offspring size up photographers who cut off their desired travel path near the residence occupied by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Jackson Lake Dam operator. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Another cause for optimism Campbell perceived was increased public awareness and a policy shift. Bear 399, she said, has been a catalyst for change, encouraging residents to tuck away bear attractants and motivating the Teton County Board of Commissioners to require bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters throughout Jackson Hole. 

“Grizzly 399 came through town on a white horse and said, ‘This is screwed up, that’s screwed up,’” Campbell said. “And in the last year, our community stepped up, to a certain degree.” 

There’s a new initiative, Jackson Hole Bear Solutions, that’s providing free bear-resistant trash cans, livestock feed containers and electric fencing to residents who request it. Ackerman, the Alpine resident, helped get that program off the ground, convincing the nonprofit Wyoming Wildlife Advocates to take it on. 

“It’s an effort to try to solve some of the problems,” he said. “It’s better than doing nothing, and nobody was doing anything.” 

Mangelsen, meanwhile, is also contributing to the chorus calling on wildlife managers to change plans for handling the subadult grizzlies once they strike out on their own. The fivesome’s behavior, he contended, should not necessarily be construed as “conflict,” just because they access human goods left out for the taking.  

“It used to be like three strikes,” Mangelsen said. “Saying we’re not going to tolerate one strike now, that’s a pretty lousy way to manage a species on the endangered species list.” 

A creature of habit, bear 399 takes a familiar route along Jackson Lake’s shoreline on her way from Signal Mountain to willow-filled meadows along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But Thompson said the problem-bear policy was never so simple. Relocation is never predetermined, he said, and there’s no concrete number of grizzly bear blunders managers condone — even if their tolerance of missteps has diminished. 

“Twenty years ago you could maybe move a bear, even within the recovery zone, and it could find a vacant home range to make a living as a young bear,” Thompson said. “But the likelihood of that now is very low.” 

Wyoming’s large carnivore manager repeated his preliminary plans for bear 399’s offspring. 

“If any of those bears are involved in a conflict involving food-rewards or something like that,” Thompson said, “I do not feel it’d be appropriate to relocate them.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.