Grizzly Managers Brace for Conflicts as 399 Prepares to Emerge
Grizzly 399 is perhaps the most famous bear in the world, and anytime now, the sow is expected to emerge from her den with her four cubs. This is also a critical year for the family, as two of the offspring will likely set out on their own.
According to Justin Schwabedissen, a bear biologist for Grand Teton National Park, the genders of the animals are not yet confirmed, but if they’re male, the cubs are expected to roam beyond the confines of federal land.
“We expect they will disperse out. Much of Grand Teton is occupied by other dominant males, so these younger males are going to have to disperse to other areas to find a home range,” Schwabedissen said.
That could be a problem, other wildlife officials from many of the larger land management organizations in the area say. Last year, several local bears, including 399, got into conflicts with residential areas due to unsecured attractants. The first bears have already been spotted this spring in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Hillary Cooley is grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and she said history is likely to repeat itself this summer. She spoke in a press conference with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Grand Teton National Park last week.
“Bears in general, when they know they have a food source, they will repeat that and go try and find it again,” Cooley said. “It can be a human safety issue, and that’s a big deal for us.”
Last year, 399 made headlines while on a foray through downtown Jackson, making quick stops at the police station and sniffing around few dumpsters. While amusing to some, Cooley said the situation wasn’t a joke for many local residents. There were 17 documented conflicts between the family and humans in 2021, an increase from 2020 according to the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
“I was getting calls from dispatch with people calling in down south and scared. Bears were in neighborhoods and they were scared,” Cooley said.
That’s why managers are asking folks to secure potential attractants and refrain from feeding animals. In particular, livestock feed, beehives, bird feeders and open trash receptacles allure bears. Dan Thompson heads the large carnivore section of Wyoming Game and Fish.
“We want people to be able to see bears in their natural habitat being wild bears. But with that comes great responsibility, I think,” Thompson said. “And you know, if that gets abused, things can go awry extremely quickly.”
The advisory also comes as local government officials are looking into potentially harsher regulations for animal-proof containers. Grand Teton National Park currently enforces strong rules related to wildlife safety, but private and county land isn’t on that level. And even if new laws get on the books this year, enforcement is going to be a struggle for overburdened officials.
“Really, the most effective way is through peer pressure. Community involvement. People talking to their neighbors. Please do the right thing,” said Blackrock District Ranger Jason Wilmot. “The fact [is] that this bear group is going to scatter regardless of management activity. And based on the biology of the bear and the nature of those cubs, they could go any direction.”
In the meantime, Thompson said he’ll be going door to door to warn neighbors as 399 and other bears move through the valley, making sure to not cause a crowd by alerting the whole world to a grizzly’s whereabouts. If a violent conflict does pose a threat, relocation of certain cubs could also be an option but isn’t guaranteed.
“There’s a lot of things that happened with this particular bear where a lot of people were able to view her easily because of where she lived and habituation,” Thompson said. “But there’s also ramifications in that, where multiple offspring were brought up habituated and then they dispersed and got in trouble and are no longer here.”
As of press time, Grizzly 399 has not emerged from her den yet. More information about how to prevent bear conflicts is available at this interagency website.
This story comes to Wyoming Public Radio through a partnership with KHOL/Jackson Hole Community Radio.