Grand Teton officials: 'No reason to believe' 399 won't emerge from den

THOMAS D. MANGELSEN courtesy photo

JACKSON —As bears begin to show up in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Grand Teton National Park is expecting Grizzly 399, the famous, 27-year-old ursine matriarch, to once again emerge from her den this spring.

“We have no reason to believe that she won’t,” said Justin Schwabedissen, Grand Teton’s bear management specialist.

Schwabedissen spoke with the Jackson Hole Daily on Thursday, one day after a park visitor reported Grand Teton’s first grizzly sighting of 2023. Yellowstone announced its first grizzly sighting just over a week ago.

After separating from her four offspring last spring, 399 and a male grizzly were seen exhibiting “courting behavior,” Schwabedissen said. The “big question” this year is whether 399 will emerge, again, with cubs.

“It’s certainly a possibility,” he said.

Grizzly 399 is likely the most famous grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if not the world. 

She made a name for herself raising offspring along roads in Grand Teton, behavior that biologists think may help protect cubs from being killed by older, territorial male bears. In doing so, she has attracted throngs of visitors and an international spotlight, particularly after emerging in 2020 with four cubs. That was her largest known litter, and one that she spent two years raising at the upper end of a grizzly’s typical 30-or-so-year lifespan.

After kicking off her cubs, 399 made herself scarce last year, leaving some of her most ardent followers wondering where she went.

“I looked really hard for a couple of weeks in October, November and December and I never saw any bear tracks around Pilgrim Creek,” said Tom Mangelsen, a Jackson photographer who has made a living following 399 and her brood. “I started worrying about whether she ever went back there, which she always has.”

Mangelsen said he last saw 399 in mid-September of 2022.

“I felt she was quite healthy,” he said. “If she did actually go to den, she’ll probably have two or three cubs.”

Schwabedissen also said the last confirmed sighting of 399 was in mid-September of last year. He said there were more reported sightings afterwards that were “likely to be her.”

Without a GPS collar, 399’s exact whereabouts are unknown.

“However, we fully expect that she is denned up,” Schwabedissen said.

While 399 is “at the upper end of a grizzly bear’s lifespan,” her body condition “did look good” last fall, he said.

The bear biologist said the bruin spotted Wednesday in Grand Teton National Park was likely not one of the park’s celebrity bears, typically females like 399 who have raised cubs along the road. Reported by a visitor who “knows bear species well,” the bear was likely a male grizzly of unknown age, Schwabedissen said.

Park officials were, however, unable to get eyes on the bear before it disappeared.

Males typically emerge from the den first in mid-March, followed by females without cubs in April, and females with dependent young in mid-April and early May. 

In 2020, when 399 first emerged with four cubs, she left the den on May 18. Last year, with four subadults in tow, she popped out on Easter Sunday.

In general, Schwabedissen said Wednesday’s sighting of the first grizzly in the park is later than usual.

But, he said, that’s expected given the heavy snow that has fallen on the Tetons in the past few months.