The sun dipped toward the Tetons as wildlife safari guide Chelse Grohman rolled up to a cluster of vehicles, often an indicator of nearby grizzlies.
The Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures guide expected to see either the grizzly sow known as 399 or “Blondie,” both springtime mainstays in northern Grand Teton National Park. Instead, she unexpectedly came upon an adult female that had a pair of weeks-old little ones at her side.
“She had two [cubs of the year], which doesn’t match any of the other females that hang out there,” Grohman said of the May encounter. “There was a lot of buzz going around.”
The “buzz” hinted that the bruin before her was grizzly 610, a 15-year-old female that learned to make a living in roadside habitats from her world-famous mother, bear 399. Upping the intrigue and uncertainty, grizzly 610 had eschewed her usual haunts for almost two full years.
Grohman recollected that crowd-control “Wildlife Brigade” volunteers on scene fed the rumors that 610 was back, though one senior National Park Service biologist said it’s premature to make such a proclamation.
“We have no confirmation that bear is in the park, or the area,” Teton park wildlife chief Dave Gustine said. “We don’t know, and that’s the bottom line.”
When grizzly 610 went “missing” she sported a small yellow tag clipped to one ear. The sow seen with cubs lacks that identifying feature, though Gustine said it’s not uncommon for ear tags to be ripped out.
Some of the park’s most faithful wildlife watchers have made up their minds ahead of Gustine. The grizzly sow known for being fiery and short with her kiddos, they say, is back.
Grizzly watching devotee Bernie Scates is among those confirming that the animal in question is 610, making the claim on a social media post accompanied by a zoomed-in photo.
“This photo confirms a small scar under the right eye,” Scates wrote on a well-shared Facebook post. “The right ear tag [is] missing but clip is seen, and the left ear tag [is] missing along with a portion of her ear!”
It would be possible to confirm whether 610 is back by using either genetic testing or by checking for an inner-lip tattoo or chip customarily left when bears are trapped for research or because they’ve been in trouble. Grizzly 610 has been captured and fitted with a GPS collar for monitoring on multiple occasions, Gustine said, meaning she could be identified. But making that determination would entail immobilizing the bruin, which is especially undesirable when sows have cubs in tow, and trapping can be hazardous to the family group.
Park staff have no plans to try to verify the buzz that the sow is 610, Gustine said. When she was presumed missing, he said, no attempts were made to look for her, for example in areas like past den sites.
“There was never any concern from our standpoint or from the [Interagency Grizzly Bear] Study Team about the fate of this bear,” Gustine said. “Adult females have very high survival rates.”
Decades of research of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies shows that adults have about a 95 percent chance of making it through any given year alive.
Even with such strong odds of survival, those who drive around and pound the pavement to photograph and document the roadside grizzlies’ goings-on each spring feared for the worst when 610 failed to show up last summer. Before the potential sightings this May, she was last seen in early summer 2017, having just cast away a pair of 2-year-old cubs.
Images of Nature wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, a long-time chronicler of grizzlies, was among those who worried that 610 had been illegally shot and killed. But now he says the leading theory thrown around the bear-watching water cooler is that her 2018 litter never materialized.
“When they don’t have cubs, they don’t necessarily come to the road for protection,” Mangelsen said. “They just hang out in the backcountry in breeding mode.”
One posited reason for roadside behavior among park grizzlies is that the busy, frontcountry habitats provide a refuge from boars that will kill cubs in order to shift mom back into estrus. The behavior and theory gained traction starting in 2006, when grizzly 399 began raising her first successful litter in northern Grand Teton National Park. One of the cubs that helped her mother gain fanfare that summer 13 years ago was grizzly 610.
If she is indeed back, grizzly 610’s whereabouts for the last two years will probably remain a mystery. The mystique, in some people’s view, is fitting: The bruin, after all, is a wild animal that can wander where she pleases in one of the largest protected landscapes in the Lower 48.
“Whatever happened out there, we’ll never know,” Wilson resident and grizzly activist Cindy Campbell said. “It’s a good story. If it is in fact 610, that gives me such hope for the species.”
Grohman, the wildlife guide, was equally upbeat about the prospect of having laid eyes on long-lost 610.
“I can’t say 100 percent for sure if it’s her, but it’s exciting that it’s even a possibility that she’s back,” Grohman said. “What a wonderful thing to have another female with cubs.”
Viewing the bear hasn’t come easy the last couple of weeks, wildlife watchers say.
Mangelsen is among those who haven’t been able to spot the family group, reportedly last observed by the bear-watching community in the park’s Potholes area. In the meantime, he’s pleased to settle for viewing and photographing the valley matriarch, grizzly 399.
Despite being in her twilight years, at 23 years old, the sow was seen last weekend mating with a boar dubbed Bruno. That means, Mangelsen said, that she might not quite be ready to cede the spotlight.
“I’m quite sure she’ll have cubs next year, that’s just my own personal feeling,” he said. “I’ll bet you a six-pack.”
Eds note: This story has been modified to correct the year that grizzly 399 began using roadside areas.