JACKSON — Kelly Wasenmiller was captivated from afar last week, tempted by photos and videos that piled up online of grizzly bear 399 and her four lined-out cubs trudging through the snow.
The prominent grizzly family was pointed north, and everyone’s hunch was that they were headed into the den. Seeing it on the screen just didn’t cut it for the Seattle resident and amateur wildlife photographer, who had two choices: Brave a 15-hour wintertime drive or pony up and fly to the airport in Grand Teton National Park. On an impulse she secured the company of her 13-year-old daughter, Grace, booked $1,400 worth of plane tickets and flew out three hours later.
Aboard her jet, Wasenmiller engaged in the usual seat-mate chitchat, and it went something like this:
“Where you headed?”
“Oh, you’re going skiing?”
“No, I’m going to go see a bear.”
“You got on a plane to go see a bear?”
“She’s going into her den!”
It didn’t take long to accomplish the mission. From the Snake River Overlook on Thursday morning, Wasenmiller peeped grizzly 399 and her four cubs. The strung-out ursine family was easily more than a mile away across the Snake River, and visually were just dots in the distance.
“But we did see her,” Wasenmiller said later that day. “This is our fifth trip this year.”
Wasenmiller’s dedication to spotting grizzly 399 one last time in 2020 was par for the course. For four straight days a fan club of photographers, videographers, wildlife guides and passersby amassed in bulk to chauffeur the five-grizzly family on a 20-plus-mile journey. The spectacle, which began at a carcass near the Gros Ventre River, culminated with a crossing of the highway in the Pilgrim Creek area, the 24-year-old sow’s longtime denning area.
Posted up along Highway 89 on Wednesday afternoon, Matty Deehan was behind a spotting scope watching a bear he’s gotten to know intimately over 17 years. His first interaction came while elk hunting in the Snake River bottoms in the heart of Grand Teton National Park, back when that area was open to hunting.
“I didn’t even know it was her,” Deehan said. “I just saw a big grizzly bear.”
Someone nearby informed him of the animal’s research number: 399. The wildlife guide has since logged an untold number of viewings. As he took in the bruin’s northerly travels last week there was no doubt in his mind what was going on.
“She’ll be at her den by tomorrow afternoon, provided they don’t find another elk carcass,” Deehan said. “Directionally, that’s what’s going on right now.”
Grizzly 399 endured an eventful 2020, a year the headlines and global adulation began the day 20 bear paws padded into view. She emerged the day Grand Teton National Park reopened to the public, following a nearly two-month closure triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Surprisingly, she was joined by four cubs, her largest litter yet and a brood size that’s exceedingly rare for a grizzly bear.
More remarkable yet, bear 399 managed to keep all those cubs alive at an age that’s near the upper limit of a typical grizzly bear lifespan. Statistically, it was an unlikely feat — grizzly cubs in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have about a 55 percent chance of surviving their first year, according to Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team data.
There were unprecedented bumps for Jackson Hole’s most famous wild animal along the way.
The evening of Oct. 27 the five-grizzly family was seen scurrying across Highway 390 near Calico, a restaurant many miles south of her ordinary territory near Grand Teton National Park. The community longed for their time in the southern, more developed part of Jackson Hole to be fleeting, but instead it stretched into weeks and then nearly a month.
Much of the time the sow and her four cubs of the year were out of view on ranchlands and in large-lot subdivisions, living off of elk carcasses and remains left behind from private land hunting.
Grizzly 399’s sojourn to the southern valley was fraught at times. In the course of a week she scored human-related foods on three occasions, cleaning out an apiarist’s beehives, getting into pelleted livestock feed and also a compost pile. Those “food rewards” fueled fears that the cubs were learning dangerous behavior, and Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Supervisor Brad Hovinga called the situation “unnerving” at the time.
“Here’s a bear that’s long habituated to being around people,” Hovinga said. “Now she’s in a new area that has different food sources, and some of those food sources are associated with human and residential activity.”
But the day before Thanksgiving, the grizzly gossip mill was in full swing as word spread that bear 399 was headed back north. Game and Fish bear biologist Mike Boyce essentially escorted her across highways, through neighborhoods and over ranches right up until where the bruins climbed over a buck-and-rail fence marking Teton Park’s southern boundary.
For the month that followed the noticeable family group mostly stuck tight to southern Grand Teton and the National Elk Refuge. Their presence there into the winter wasn’t a coincidence, as they were repeatedly seen taking advantage of late-season cow/calf elk hunts that litter the landscape with hundreds of gut piles and the occasional gunshot-and-lost animal.
“She’s a unique individual in that most grizzly bears with cubs try to go to the den early,” Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson said. “She’s carved out her own niche.”
In the eyes of some avid observers, all those calories had a clear effect on the bears.
“Oh, she’s super fat,” painter and photographer Sue Cederholm said. “She’s definitely porked up. And those cubs, they’re all chubby too.”
“She looks rotund to me, and the cubs look healthy too,” he said. “Of course I can’t feel her ribs and her body, but she’s moving around really well.”
Cedarholm, along with colleague Tom Mangelsen, were part of a crowd with Wasenmiller whose 22 vehicles were parked at Signal Mountain. Joined by a Teton Park law enforcement officer, they waited in anticipation for grizzly 399 and the crew to resurface after having disappeared from view from the highway.
Near dusk the family waddled through the snow within eyeshot of the home of Beth Bennett, who lives with her husband at the Bureau of Reclamation house perched above Jackson Lake Dam.
“The party was at my house!” Bennett posted up online. “399 and the four cubs of the apocalypse stopped for a quick rest behind the house out of camera view before heading to her den. So hundreds of her closest friends partied out front!”
It was the next morning, on New Years Day, that grizzly 399 actually slipped out of sight. She crossed the highway just yards from the Pilgrim Creek bridge, then disappeared into the trees while clearing a path for her four cubs.
“Snow is deep here, 2 to 3 feet, but she will make it in a few hours,” Mangelsen said.
While that’s a wrap on grizzly 399’s most tumultuous year yet, she certainly wowed the masses along the journey.
“That bear was kind of a glimmer of hope for a lot of people, in some pretty dark times,” Game and Fish’s Thompson said. “While very nerve-racking for us on the ground, it really provided a distraction for people at a time when they needed it.”
There’s no good reason grizzly 399 won’t emerge next summer at age 25 with yearling cubs at her side. It’s even more assured that the photographers, tourists and the rest of the fan club will be ready and waiting.