The state of Wyoming’s call for help to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Hilary Cooley, came back on Oct. 18 after a wall-to-wall weekend of conflicts.
It was a Monday, and local staffers at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls and conflicts related to Grizzly 399, a famous sow bear with four half-grown cubs who’s on an extended walkabout through southern Jackson Hole. That revered 25-year-old bear has spent more time outside Grand Teton National Park than within the protected landscape since summer, and her travels through places like Josies Ridge, Tribal Trails and Hoback Junction are proving problematic.
“We had repeated conflicts over a three- or four-day period, way down south,” Game and Fish large carnivore biologist Mike Boyce told the News&Guide. “Property damage, livestock feed and apiary damage.”
During her first-ever known extended time south of the national park in 2020, Grizzly 399 successfully exploited human-related foods on several occasions. The grizzly mother and her then months-old cubs gorged on molasses-enriched grain left out for moose, hit livestock feed, wiped out a beekeeper’s colony and picked through a compost pile.
But her more recent behavior has taken an even more concerning turn.
The grizzly who has mothered a half-dozen litters of cubs has started becoming more destructive and actively seeking food in residential areas.
“We’re seeing a behavior change,” Boyce said.
Since Aug. 3 she has been implicated in 10 conflicts: Five times, she’s gotten into apiaries — beekeepers’ honey. The other five occasions the five-grizzly family was feeding on livestock grain. There were consequences. Several times the family has been hazed with cracker shells, nonlethal projectiles and other means: three times by Boyce, once by a Fish and Wildlife Service official and once by a landowner.
Knowledge about how to exploit left-out human-related foods is also being imparted to the next generation, said Dan Thompson, who heads Wyoming Game and Fish’s large carnivore division.
“She’s teaching four 200-pound bears that this is how to get food,” Thompson said.
Next year those cubs will be “subadults,” 2 1/2-year-olds that will be run off by Grizzly 399. The writing is on the wall for where they’re likely to go once independent.
“We’ll be busy with them next spring.” Thompson said. “I guarantee it.”
Cooley, who coordinates grizzly bear management across their range in the Lower 48, is getting directly involved in the effort to keep Grizzly 399 alive and out of trouble until she goes back north and stays there. Cooley has been in Jackson Hole for the past week and has secured funding to have someone grizzly-sitting the famous ursine family and shepherding them away from bad situations around the clock.
“What we’re doing is we’re just intensively monitoring her,” Cooley told the News&Guide. “I just talked to [my employee] and he might have found a track. It’s that kind of thing.”
“That’s what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s like a 24/7 effort.”
The effort to keep tabs on Grizzly 399 is tough because she’s moving quickly. Much of last weekend she was around Hoback Junction and even some ways up the Hoback River. By Monday morning she was back by Jackson, seen on the slopes not far from one of the most popular near-town hikes: Josies Ridge. Through most of the day Tuesday there were no reports of her whereabouts.
It’s almost a unanimous view that it’s problematic for a highly human-habituated grizzly family to live on the outskirts of Jackson.
“The whole county is kind of behind the times in terms of trash and storage and conflict prevention,” Cooley said. “Beehives, livestock feed, open dumpsters. Almost everywhere you look there’s something.”
Apiaries, for example, do not legally need to be protected from bears. Same goes for livestock feed. Enforcement of the “bear conflict zones” in Teton County that require bear-proof garbage cans and bird feeder standards has been limited by staffing shortages.
“We are so far behind the ball,” Red Top Meadows resident Cindy Campbell said. “We are sending her down a gauntlet to be killed.”
Several years ago Teton County assembled a group of residents to review and round out its bear-friendly rules. Unanimously they advised expanding the garbage storage regulation countywide and strengthening bear conflict regulations relating to pet feed, apiaries and chicken coops. But the recommendations were never enacted. Recently there have been petitions and a flood of emails urging Teton County to revamp its regulations. Last week commissioners discussed the potential reforms, suggesting that they’d take up the issue this winter.
But grizzly advocates say changes are urgently needed.
“The stakes have gotten a little higher, right?” said Chris Colligan, the wildlife program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “It’s time, I think, for action on this issue. That’s what I’m seeing, from Grizzly 399’s movements. It’s just unacceptable for us to think that this issue is going to go away.”
Last winter Grizzly 399 didn’t head into her den, which is 35 miles north of Jackson, until the first week of January. After a monthlong southern valley sojourn she spent the remainder of the year back north, primarily feeding on gut piles left behind by elk hunters and gunshot-and-lost elk.
An early blast of winter, Boyce hoped, could get the elk moving, bring hunters out in force and pull the grizzly family back north.
Until that happens she’s in a “really crummy area,” Cooley said. Fish and Wildlife Service is not showing its hand as far as what it plans do with Grizzly 399, other than monitor her. Rumors have swirled that the federal agency seeks to trap and fit the grizzly family with GPS collars to make tracking them easier.
Cooley would not affirm this plan, but did say, “It’s tough to always be behind her.”
Fish and Wildlife staffers and the state and federal agencies they are coordinating with — Game and Fish, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service — have discussed the possibility of relocating Grizzly 399 and her offspring but haven’t come up with a good place to bring her.
“There’s not a great spot, no matter where you look,” Cooley said. “We’re not giving specifics out about what we’re doing because of our safety and 399’s safety. We just want her to get to bed safely. We have no ill intentions.”
Decision-making about Grizzly 399 and what to do about her run of conflicts is immensely divisive. It’s one of the reasons that Game and Fish put in the call for assistance. But another reason is that Boyce, wardens and other personnel who handle conflicts are busy dealing with other bears. On the whole, Jackson Hole is tracking for an average year for bear conflicts in the developed parts of the valley. But there’s an unprecedented shift underway.
“Grizzly bears have been involved in the majority of the conflicts this year,” Boyce said. “We’re having grizzly bear conflict way down south. That’s been a change.”
The outcome is that five human food-conditioned grizzlies have lost their lives. Three of those animals had blood ties to Grizzly 399. Two subadult bears born to Grizzly 610 — 399’s daughter — were darted or trapped and killed after unrelenting spates of conflict. Then last week, Grand Teton National Park put down Grizzly 962, a 4-year-old female the world-famous sow raised in her previous litter. That grizzly was among those who was fed repeatedly in a Solitude Subdivision backyard during 2020. The landowner was investigated and the grizzly feeding was documented, but federal prosecutors declined to press charges after the resident stated that she intended to feed moose, not grizzlies.
It’s not just Jackson Hole’s grizzlies that are faring poorly during 2021, Cooley said. Already 60 deaths have been documented so far in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to a federal database.
“It’s a bad year for grizzly bear mortalities all around,” Cooley said. “Conflicts, defense-of-life-killings, vehicle mortalities, you name it, it’s been a really bad year.
“We actually had to remove an entire family group about a month ago,” she said. “It was a hard day at work.”
Grizzly 399’s fame is working in her favor and is likely to help her avoid the same fate.
“We certainly don’t have 24/7 monitoring of all other bears,” Cooley said. “We recognize she’s different. She’s an ambassador.”
Some of Grizzly 399’s most ardent followers take the view that the matriarch bruin is best left alone and shouldn’t be subject to traps, collared, or moved forcefully back north.
“Give her a chance for a few more weeks,” Images of Nature wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen said. “She’s just following the food. Think about Winnie the Pooh, for Christ’s sake. Of course she’s going to find honey.”
Yet other 399 advocates in the community support taking aggressive actions to get the esteemed grizzly mother out of harm’s way, which means far from the town of Jackson and the perils of developed areas that are far from bear-proof.
“I think just haze the hell out of her,” Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Executive Director Kristin Combs said. “It’s really a nightmare situation and it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck. My breath is held every day. I feel like I get up in the morning and check for that text, and I sure hope I don’t get that text.”
Campbell, the Red Top resident, said her chief worry is that Grizzly 399 and her brood will encounter a resident who’s not as tolerant or enthusiastic about grizzlies as she is. For that reason she’d be supportive if the Fish and Wildlife Service caught and collared the ambassador bruin to aid their monitoring effort — if that is indeed the plan.
“I’ve lived in this valley long enough to know that there are a lot of people who don’t want those bears in their backyard,” Campbell said. “I don’t want her staring down the barrel of a shotgun at 2 in the morning when nobody knows where she is.”