Grizzly 399 and 610 - Grand Teton's famous roadside bears
GRAND TETONNATIONAL PARK - Beloved and famous Grand Teton Grizzly Sow 399 and new set of triplet cubs made their debut on June 5, 2011 to the delight of many, but especially to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone's cadre of wildlife photographers like myself. 399 the four-hundred-pound grizzly acquired her unimaginative moniker in 2001 when, as a five-year-old sow, she was trapped and fitted with a radio collar so researchers could track her. Bear 399 was born to a mother who had no history with the legendary Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Study Team that tracks bears across the landscape.
During the summer of 2004, 399 emerged from her den with a single cub, but the cub disappeared. It is assumed it had a deadly encounter with an adult male grizzly which are known to kill cubs. Male grizzlies are the greatest treat to cubs, as female grizzlies will not come into heat as long as they are nursing cubs.
In late November of 2005 she denned up in the Teton Wilderness north of Grand Teton National park for hibernation. The following spring, she emerged with three new cubs in tow. Almost immediately, the sow and cubs drew large crowds. They became a sensation unlike any Grand Teton Park grizzly in modern memory.
399 once again is delighting tourists and photographers in the meadows along the road as she is often spotted digging for Uinta ground squirrels, wild onion, yampa root, and Indian potato. She and her cubs also graze on plants like dandelion and clover often with the intensity of other grazing animals. It's nature's salad bar that precedes the arrival of early summer's main course, newly born elk calves. Once the feast of elk veal decreases from the elk calving grounds surviving elk calves become harder to catch, the grizzly family returns to the salad bar of the meadows. In late summer, their diet turns to whitebark pine cones and berries. Grizzly 399 knows how to naturally forage, and has taught those skills to her offspring.
Grizzly bears were listed in 1975 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That designation was removed in 2007 but was restored by court order in 2009. In 1970, Yellowstone National Park initiated an intensive bear management plan with the objectives of restoring the grizzly bear populations to subsistence on natural forage and reducing bear-caused injuries to humans. As part of the new bear management program regulations prohibiting the feeding of bears were strictly enforced, as were regulations requiring that human food is kept secured from bears. In addition, garbage cans were bear-proofed and garbage dumps within the park were closed.
The results were disastrous for the existing grizzlies in Yellowstone as most died of starvation because they didn't know how to find natural food; however, the 150+ surviving bears figured it out and survived. These survivors taught their cubs too live off natural food, and now we have a thriving population of grizzlies in Yellowstone that avoid humans instead of seeking them out. Park biologists want to ensure that the Grizzlies remain wild and reliant upon natural food sources only. To keep all grizzly bears wild and free, people must practice good "bear aware" etiquette and be responsible while recreating in Grand Teton National Park. Grizzly sows hold premium "value" in a bear population. 399 has delivered two sets of triplets and is a key player in the exponential expansion of the Yellowstone Grizzly population.
We photographers and wildlife watchers of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone who have assumed the role of amateur cognitive ethologists have concluded that 399's predilection for frequenting areas rife with humans may be purposeful. Our ethological-projection is merely guesswork by armatures, but we surmise that 399 have determined that as annoying as we humans are, we are not dangerous. Male grizzlies steer clear of human congestion, therefore congested national park habitat may be safer than truly wild grizzly habitat. Biologists say 399's strategy of remaining close to the road may have kept her cubs safe by deterring large male grizzlies and predators. Nonetheless, she and her cubs remain wild, naturally foraging bears that are potentially dangerous. 399 is remarkably attentive, passing on the instincts of survival and necessary to survive in a crowded human world.
The cubs are cute no question about that, but a female grizzly with cubs happens to be one of the most dangerous animals in North America. In 2007 this normally ambivalent sow bit a man who came across the four bears feeding on a just-killed elk. Dennis Vandenbos tried yelling to frighten the bears away, then lay down on his stomach in a submissive posture. One of the bears then attacked; inflicting lacerations and puncture wounds. A nearby Grand Teton Lodge Co. employee frightened the bear away. It was lucky VanDenbos had the presence of mind to lie down on his stomach when he realized the bear would continue approaching him. The attack likely resulted from a defensive response by a bear, while protecting its food source so no action was taken against 399 because of the attack.
Grizzly cubs are weaned around June of their third spring. Young sows may hang around their mother for another year, sharing her home range, and eventually becoming her replacement in the circle of life, boars; however, strike out to establish their own territory. All the cubs 399 delivered in 2006 reached adulthood, which is a statistical anomaly, which rarely happens in nature. Grizzly sow 399 may know what she is doing.
To the delight of many grizzly 610 one of 399's cubs from her 2006 crop of cubs, also showed up this spring with two new cubs of her own. Grizzly 610 seems to be emulating her mother she seems to be comfortable near park roads and relaxed with the cubs, She seems comfortable with people and vehicles as is 399. For those who see 610 and her brood the experience will be as special. And those who know her family history will likely be even more appreciative.
Grizzly 399, her daughter, 610 and their broods are certainly going to be a net gain for the economy of Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park providing a boon for hoteliers, restaurants, gift shops, service stations and outdoor gear stores because of thousands of people coming to view them this summer. Jackson Hole won't be the only monetary beneficiary though. I as are many other photographers are upgrading our premium lens arsenals to include 500mm, 600mm, and 800mm lenses that cost thousands of dollars apiece, a windfall for Canon and Nikon that has their executives smiling.
Photographing grizzlies is one of my biggest thrills much to the peril of the rest of my photographic checklist. I often retrospectively kick myself for driving past beautiful sunrises and gorgeous scenery in the hopes of getting to a good bear location where a bear may or may not show up. The anticipation of the thrill of finding then photographing these amazing animals cause me to jettison all photographic pragmatism if the hopes of capturing that perfect grizzly moment.
This new generation of the family excited biologists and frankly, everyone else. This clan is gaining worldwide attention from articles that are being published around the globe. 399 had a galvanizing influence, winning the hearts of all who watched her. "She changed the negative attitude that some people have about grizzlies, Grizzly 610, I am sure, will carry on the tradition. Twenty years ago, seeing a grizzly in Grand Teton was rare. Today it's common all grizzlies in the woods are "valuable" but not all are equal. Each comes with qualitative distinctions, just as people do. Bears 399 and 610 are not only mascots for their species; they are ambassadors for Grand Teton National Park and all Grizzly Bears everywhere. 399's progeny are sure to be delighting untold thousands of Grand Teton Park visitors for years to come.