Grizzly 399 and her four cubs have left Grand Teton National Park, taking a southern tack much earlier than officials and wildlife watchers expected.
“As far as we know, this is the farthest south she’s been this early in the year ever, and that does have us concerned,” Chief of Staff Jeremy Barnum said.
That “increases the imperative that she not get food rewards,” he said.
“The hope would be if she and the subadults don’t get food rewards, they’ll instead focus on natural food sources, which hopefully would lead them back up into the park,” he said.
Dan Thompson, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore supervisor, confirmed this is the earliest 399 has left the park: less than a week after emerging from the den.
In the past two years, 399 and her cubs have ventured down into the southern part of Jackson Hole later in the year, getting into human-related foods two falls in a row.
The grizzlies’ more recent movements had wildlife managers and watchers concerned. Bears that repeatedly access human-related foods can get aggressive in trying to get to them, presenting a safety hazard for humans and thus increasing the potential for more invasive management actions: hazing, relocation, and live or lethal removal.
Wildlife managers are currently focusing on conflict prevention, asking people in Teton County to lock up attractants like trash, beehives, compost and chicken coops.
But they have said more severe management options are on the table this year for the famous fivesome. That’s particularly true for 399’s cubs, which are expected to separate from their mother sometime this spring and have a history of accessing human-related food.
“Those offspring haven’t been taught how to forage naturally,” Thompson said.
399’s current southern foray comes a few months before July 1, when Teton County’s new wildlife feeding ordinance goes into effect.
It will require bear-resistant trash cans, and residents in areas outside of the town of Jackson will have to lock up other attractants. In the meantime, compliance is encouraged, but voluntary.
Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, worries the county is not ready for grizzly season.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “Not prepared at all.”
Nonprofits like hers, meanwhile, are trying to move the needle on locking up attractants. It has raised $200,000 to purchase 280 bear-resistant cans and offer some to residents at reduced costs. Thompson said the county is also in a state of “hyper awareness” given 399’s recent history.
“I think that’s a good thing,” he said, also pointing to relatively low tourism in the valley as a positive.
Game and Fish is responsible for managing 399, her cubs and other bears outside the park. Last year, Game and Fish officials called in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help them manage 399 and her brood.
But state and federal wildlife managers have said they plan to have the state agency manage the 399 situation this year, with feds as backup if necessary.
With the celebrity bear outside Grand Teton, Thompson said, there haven’t been any issues so far. The bears have largely stuck to a Snake River drainage.
“They’re not in a bad spot right now,” he said.
But members of the public have been tailing the bears, and Game and Fish officials are on the ground monitoring the bears’ movement.
Thompson asked the public to not be “selfish or ignorant about these bears or any wildlife.”
“Give these bears space, give the wildlife space, give the people on the ground space,” Thompson said. “Don’t put yourself in a position that’s going to be bad for you or bears.”
To confirm 399’s location, Barnum cited data Thursday from the radio collars placed on two of the cubs last season. There’s a lag in that information — Barnum referenced data from the day prior — so it’s not clear where, exactly, 399 was at press time Thursday. But Barnum said the bears made their way out of the park along the Snake River bottom.
Grizzly photographer and advocate Tom Mangelsen said he had spotted them Wednesday evening east of Teton Village and had heard reports they had been spotted farther north Thursday.
“Hopefully she’s going north,” Mangelsen said.
The photographer also admitted he was a bit flummoxed by how quickly the bears had moved south.
“I didn’t really think she’d go far south,” said Mangelsen, who predicted otherwise. “The airport was about as far south as she’d ever gone that I’m aware of at this time of year.”
Thompson asked the public to continue to relay information to Game and Fish so the department can “act appropriately.”