Grand Teton National Park’s most famous grizzly bear — dubbed 399 by researchers — is once again roaming the roadsides around Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, and again with three new cubs at her heels.
Starting in 2006, grizzly 399 raised three cubs within sight of roads in the Oxbow Bend, Willow Flats and Jackson Lake Lodge area of the park, delighting visitors and providing numerous opportunities for photographers. Researchers say 399 is about 15 years old.
The 399 sightings last weekend come after one of those 2006 cubs, 399’s 5-year-old daughter 610, was spotted last week with two cubs of her own. She was just a few miles away from her mother near Signal Mountain and the Potholes area.“It’s incredible,” said photographer Tom Mangelsen, who operates Mangelsen-Images of Nature Gallery in Jackson. “Especially with three cubs again. She must be really fertile and healthy. It was a nice surprise.”
Grizzly 399 has been spotted along the roadside near Colter Bay and around Leeks Marina. “She’s doing the same thing she’s done for years,” Mangelsen said. “She was feeding on the same side hill that I saw her feeding on three years ago.” Behavior exciting, not surprising
That 399 and 610 are raising their cubs so close to each other is exciting but not surprising, Grand Teton National Park senior wildlife biologist Steve Cain said.
“We know during years when neither of them had cubs, their home ranges overlapped significantly,” Cain said.
Before this spring, observers had even seen two bears matching 399’s and 610’s descriptions “closely interacting,” Cain said.
“Since they are related, it can be expected that they would have a greater tolerance for each other,” he said. “We can expect them to interact more than nonrelated bears would. Whether or not that will occur when they both have cubs is yet to be seen.”
Grizzly 610 has likely adopted her mother’s strategy of raising cubs by the road, Cain said. The strategy could help the two grizzly mothers avoid adult male grizzlies, which have been known to kill cubs. The strategy could also help keep the bear families away from other potential threats such as wolves.
“It seems clear that  was brought up in a way that allows her to be tolerant of people,” Cain said. “They still have what we consider an appropriate degree of wariness. They do not readily approach buildings or vehicles. As far as we know, neither one of them has been associated with human foods.”
Bear managers say that once bears develop a taste for human food, they often continue to seek it relentlessly. Usually, those fed bears become a threat to human safety and/or property and must be relocated or killed.
“But it’s very important to remember that both of these bears, even though they are comfortable being in close proximity to people, are wild bears,” Cain said.
Cain pointed to an incident in 2007 when 399 bit a Lander man who got too close to her cubs and a freshly killed elk. Biologists determined she was acting normally and let the family be.
Female bears raising cubs so close to the road might not work as well outside of a national park, Cain said. National parks provide refuge
“The fact that one of 399’s offspring has now grown to adulthood and is raising a family of her own in this delicate human-bear interface shows that national park settings provide something that other places don’t,” Cain said. “This sort of situation wouldn’t be easily manageable or even appropriate outside national parks.”
Nevertheless, wildlife watchers are worried for the two families. With them close to the road, a wildlife-vehicle collision is one potential hazard. On Tuesday, Yellowstone National Park officials announced the death of an adult male grizzly that was hit in an automobile collision north of Old Faithful (see related story page 25A).
Mangelsen said the park’s elk reduction hunt is another problem. Hunter-grizzly conflicts are one of the leading causes of bear deaths in the region. Hunters often move through bear habitat quietly, leading to suprise encounters during which humans are often mauled and bears are often shot.
Another female from 399’s 2006 litter, bear 615, was shot by a hunter just outside the park. The hunter subsequently claimed self-defense.
The male from 399’s 2006 litter, 587, has experienced his own problems. Shortly after he was weaned from his mother, he was relocated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest for getting too close to homes near Pacific Creek. Last year, he was caught after killing a cow in the Upper Green River Basin. Wyoming Game and Fish bear managers subsequently relocated him back to Grand Teton National Park.
“[Grizzly 399] is a good bear,” Mangelsen said. “I hope she stays safe.
“We had almost given up that we would find 399 with cubs,” he said, saying he hopes researchers refrain from putting a radio or global positioning system collar on 399 and 610. Mangelsen said that researchers already have enough collared bears.
“She’s a rock star of the bear world. It couldn’t be better news for me,” he said.