To the many fans of grizzly 399, the recent emergence of Grand Teton National Park’s grizzly matriarch with four cubs transforms a season of anxiety into a time of celebration.
Her feat is remarkable. At 24, 399 is ancient in bear years. And among the rarities that can be seen in Yellowstone, a litter of grizzly bear quadruplets is right up there with an eruption of the mercurial Steamboat geyser. Indeed, only eight litters of quadruplets have been documented since 1983 in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
This is 399’s seventh litter — including three sets of triplets — making her an Olympian mother. One good grizzly mom can make all the difference. The entire Yellowstone population could be built on as few as 50 fertile females alive during the early 1980s.
Grizzly 399 has perfected the art of living along roads primarily to keep her cubs safe from aggressive boars that tend to prefer more remote areas. Thankfully, the National Park Service embraces bears like 399 and works assiduously to ensure that everybody, bears and humans, stays safe.
But when 399 and her family step outside park borders, they enter a world of hazards. On neighboring lands vital to bears’ survival, policies are dictated by the state of Wyoming. State managers harbor a less inclusive view of grizzlies. So many of 399’s offspring have been killed outside the park that she has so far replaced herself just once with a female who has had cubs: grizzly 610. The deaths of four of 399’s offspring highlight some of the grizzly’s biggest threats: livestock conflicts, poaching, car collisions, and management gaffs.
Grizzly 615: Daughter of 399, grizzly 615 was diminutive and shy. Dubbed “Persistence,” the one thing 615 could not persist was bullets at close range. In 2009 she was shot illegally by a hunter on national forest land near Kelly. She was feeding on a moose and stood up to look at the hunter at a distance of 40 yards. He shot 615, later claiming self-defense.
At trial, the hunter was convicted of poaching. But he paid only a $500 fine, which speaks volumes about how grizzlies are valued by Wyoming’s legal system.
Grizzly 587: In 2013, grizzly 587, son of 399, was killed by Wyoming Game and Fish officials in the Upper Green River area because he had developed a habit of eating livestock. The Upper Green has become the ecosystem’s hotbed of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers. Many ranchers peacefully work out their differences with grizzly bears using commonsense husbandry practices. But in the Upper Green the tool of choice among these privileged ranchers seems to be a telephone call to Wyoming’s top politicians with the aim of getting inconvenient grizzlies killed.
Grizzly 760: Grandson of grizzly 399 and son of 610, he was handsome and joyful, described as “the perfect gentleman.” In 2014 Wyoming officials killed him after he ate a deer that a hunter had left dangling on a pole.
760’s troubles began when he showed up in a subdivision near Wilson. Although he had never obtained food from humans, he was trapped and dropped off near Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance among a veritable hive of bears — in October, when he needed to pack on pounds for winter. 760 quickly made his way to a community of people that his life experience had taught him would be hospitable. Behind a home he found the deer. For this, managers killed 760, though he had never committed any of the three sins that typically warrant death: depredating food that had been reasonably secured; displaying aggressive, non-defensive behavior; or injuring or killing someone. Although officials involved in this fiasco tried to paint 760 as a dangerous “food conditioned” bear, his fans rescued his reputation with the truth.
Snowy: In 2016, 399 emerged with a blond-faced cub that was nicknamed Snowy. Just a month later, Snowy was struck by a car and killed. 399 promptly dragged the cub’s body from the road. After park officials removed the corpse, photographers described a gut-wrenching scene that lasted for days, as the grieving mother frantically bird-dogged the sagebrush looking for her cub.
There is much to learn from these sad tales. We need better law enforcement. Bad actors inside and outside the government should be punished, not rewarded. We must reduce collisions with cars. And we need to reform state agencies to reflect the broader public interest. Hunter numbers are dropping as numbers of wildlife watchers are growing and demanding a more compassionate approach to wild animals.
Just as Grizzly 399 is busy teaching her four little ones how to navigate the topside world, she has much to teach us — about tolerance, equanimity and being a good mom. 399 reminds us that a reciprocal relationship with nature, even with a large carnivore, is still possible. In making the risky choice to trust us with her fate and those of her cubs, she is challenging us to return the favor with a spirit of generosity.