Distinguished grizzly mama likely denned up

JACKSON — There’s a good likelihood that famous Grizzly 399 and her four cubs have put their shaky saga to bed, at least for a few months.

Movements north toward the 25-year-old grizzly bear’s traditional denning area the weekend following Thanksgiving got U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials thinking that their round-the-clock surveillance operation might be a wrap. And precise locations conveyed by tracking collars fit to two of the sow’s yearlings seemed to confirm that a heap of five bears is now hibernating.

“She was in the backcountry and moving a little bit, but it seemed like she was zeroing in on a den site,” Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley told the Jackson Hole Daily. “Just to be clear, we have not gone in there and we don’t want to disturb her, so this is all just from GPS locations and our interpretation of what’s going on. We could be wrong — I hope not — but she could come out tomorrow.”

Grizzly 399 traditionally dens up Pilgrim Creek, a remote area northeast of Grand Teton National Park in the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Teton Wilderness. She currently is in the same general area, though her actual likely den site is in an adjoining creek drainage that Cooley is declining to specify.

“We’re just really wary,” Cooley said. “There were people hiking in, trying to track her and find her.”

That’s not a particularly good idea, she said. Prior to Grizzly 399 and company leaving the park bound for the backcountry, some of her fans also took risks trying to get closer looks.

“I saw some crazy stuff,” Cooley said. “When she was not far from the road and more than likely eating a carcass or a gut pile, people were starting to head in off the road into the trees. I had to stop them. No bear spray, no nothing.”

Grizzly 399’s struggles with people while in southern Jackson Hole this year had more to do with stuff they were leaving out in their yards, unprotected from bears. There were double-digit occasions where the five-bruin family was documented chowing down livestock feed, lapping up beekeepers’ honey and getting into garbage.

The spate of conflicts was steady enough that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department stepped back from day-to-day management, prompting its federal counterpart, the Fish and Wildlife Service, to dispatch some of its staff to monitor the grizzly family around the clock. That operation became easier in early November, when two of Grizzly 399’s male offspring were captured and collared.

They were in good shape, weighing out at 250 and 270 pounds, which could help explain why Grizzly 399 felt compelled to lead her brood toward the den a full month earlier than last year, Cooley said. Late season cow and calf elk hunts in Grand Teton Park and the National Elk Refuge were also relatively slow, limiting another late-season food source.

“I think it was good that she went straight to the den,” said Jack Bayles, a photo tour guide whose business, Team 399, stems from the matriarch grizzly. “It seems like when she made up her mind to go, she went a lot quicker. And who knows what her motivation was.”

Cooley and her colleagues at the Fish and Wildlife Service don’t have predetermined plans for how they’ll handle the Grizzly 399 situation come next spring.

“I need a little break,” Cooley said. “The agencies are going to talk in January and February. We need to take a little breather here and then we’ll see.”