Grizzly bear - Bears
Oops she did it again. Counting momma, that's 20 bear paws right there. A quad litter for 399 is a record in any book. Photo: Sue Pounian Ernise

JACKSON, Wyo. — It’s a spring rite of Grand Teton National Park. Every April-May when the park opens its gates to visitors, many of those first in line are toting Canons, Nikons, and Fujifilms, hoping to catch a glimpse of a living legend.

Grizzly 399 is the star of this show and has been for more than two decades. The 24-year-old sow is known for two things: longevity and fertility.

Just hours into a park opening delayed by a pandemic, wildlife photographers spotted 399 awakened from her winter slumber right where they left her last fall. That’s another reason the famed grizzly is world-renowned at this point and shows up on so many camera memory cards. She makes a habit of sticking near roads in the Pilgrim Creek area. Like clockwork.

The grizzled matron ambled into a clearing just before 2 p.m. on Monday, May 18, and, like in many springs’ past, she had plenty of company. Count ‘em—one, two, three, four. Four new cubs-of-the-year (COY) were close at momma’s side. Even for this fertile female, that’s a record.

Bears usually have a set of twins; sometimes just one cub or, rarely, triplets. But 399 is anything but ordinary. She’s made more cubs famous than Wrigley Field. The 400-pound queen has birthed some 20 cubs at this point. Her last seven litters included 1, 3, 3, 3, 1, 2, and now 4 offspring.

Wildlife biologists were dumbfounded in 2018 when the grand old dame popped out triplets at age 22. This time around, quads at the advanced age of 24; well, it’s left experts speechless.

Monday afternoon bear brigade. It’s been conjectured 399 purposely sticks near roads, developed areas and crowds. Maybe she loves the spotlight but more likely the crafty old bear has figured out the safest place in the wild is near people. That’s not usually the case for bears, but 399 has made it work. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

Do grizzly bears outside of captivity live to 24? Not very often. Aggressive boars, vehicle collisions, trophy hunters—you name it, a bear’s life isn’t easy, even when you are at the top of the food chain.

And what a mother 399 has been. She’s lost a few cubs but for the most part, her proclivity for sticking near the park paparazzi has served her and her offspring well.

Larger male bears that could cause 399 problems and threaten her offspring typically stay away from people and developed areas. By keeping close to the hubbub of Grand Teton tourist swarms, 399 has used her camera-toting ‘entourage’ as a protection of sorts. Let’s just say, motorists driving through the park for one, always know when she’s around.

Last year, 399 taught her two cubs all she knew and turned them loose in late summer. It’s a bittersweet moment that is sometimes hard to watch as the only mother the cubs have ever known suddenly chases them away. It is typically in this second year, after two winter hibernation with mom, that the cubs are ready to fend for themselves and mom is free to find another boytoy bear.

In 2018, Buckrail said 399’s twin-cub litter was likely her last. We were wrong. We would love to be wrong again. Love live the queen.

399 and fam head back into the timber for a little shuteye after wowing the park paparazzi for a few hours on Monday. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail