JACKSON — As five grizzly bears swam, wrestled and bounded across her manicured lawn along the Snake River, Brooke Combs shrieked and literally jumped with joy.
“This is so cute!” the 9-year-old exclaimed last Friday.
Opposite the windows of her home, not far from Fall Creek Road, two yearling cubs sparred in the waters of her family’s trout pond.
On land nearby stood their very famous grizzly mother with the rest of her brood. At 5:48 p.m. Friday the five grizzlies were passing through the backyard of an occupied home less than 100 yards from a well-traveled residential road in southern Jackson Hole.
Moments earlier, Brooke’s mother, Michon Combs, had spotted a heap of brown fur from where she sat conversing over decaf coffee with her husband, Jesse.
“It hit me pretty quick that it was Grizzly 399 and the cubs,” Jesse Combs said. “Only because I saw in the paper that they had been spotted in Teton Pines the day before.”
As the grizzlies passed through, Jesse Combs shot a video for Bob Reeder, who he hired to repair some backyard floodlights. That morning he’d joked with the handyman that the fix was urgent because the five-grizzly family might be in the neighborhood. Hours later, shockingly, they appeared.
While Combs took the footage for practical purposes, it captured the awe that Grizzly 399 has reliably inspired over the last 15 years, while the 25-year-old bruin has been raising her litters within eyeshot of roads in Grand Teton National Park.
“This is incredible,” Michon Combs said as the griz passed by. “Oh my God.”
Two years in a row one of the world’s most famous wild animals has migrated well beyond the borders of the national park and into areas where few Jackson Hole residents and visitors would expect to encounter a grizzly bear. But times have changed.
In the late fall of 2020, Grizzly 399 left Teton Park and ran a gantlet through privately owned properties for almost a month. Although the veteran ursine mother managed to keep all four of her cubs alive, the journey was fraught. On at least four occasions she successfully engorged herself on unnatural but easily available foods, including honey from a beekeepers’ colony and molasses-enriched grain that a Solitude subdivision resident had left out for moose.
Last year bear fans were relieved when she finally returned to the more protected national park. But, beginning last week, she again started roaming south on a high-risk journey.
Almost immediately she found trouble: The grizzly family got into livestock feed somewhere between the park’s southern boundary and Highway 22 the day the bear family left the park.
More recently, reports of Grizzly 399 and her cubs have been few, and there’s no evidence that she’s gotten into more human-related foods.
“We’ve been really busy following up on any and all reports, and we have no indication that they’ve got into anything else,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Large Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said. “It’s been pretty quiet, quite honestly. No news is good news.”
Then on Tuesday morning, there was good news: Grizzly 399 and her four cubs crossed Highway 22 headed north, back in the direction of Grand Teton. It’s possible that she reversed course because she did not reap the same rewards as in 2020.
“We set up electric fence around all the stuff they got into last fall, plus more,” Game and Fish Bear Biologist Mike Boyce said. “And there’s no feeding at Solitude, so all good there.”
Because grizzly bears are classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, it’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would call the shots if the bears return and conflicts arise. The agency’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Hilary Cooley, could not be reached by press time. Thompson said conversations between state and federal agencies have been similar to their 2020 discussions.
Authorities so far have tolerated the presence of the highly human-habituated grizzlies in the southern, more-developed portion of Teton County.
“Nothing is off the table, but if things take a turn for the worse, we’re not going to ignore our responsibility to the public because of the scrutiny,” Thompson said. “We’re going to do what’s right, understanding there’s international scrutiny on the entire situation.”
Any decisions, he said, will be made case by case.
In the meantime, Grizzly 399’s most ardent advocates are taking steps to try to protect the beloved bear.
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates took out a full-page ad in the Aug. 7 Jackson Hole Daily, spreading word that “Jackson’s biggest celebrity family could be coming to your neighborhood.” The accompanying message includes tips for keeping a bear-safe property, like storing barbecue grills inside and closing garage doors.
“Please, please, please, now is the time to put your bird feeders away,” said Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Director Kristin Combs (No relation to Jesse Combs’ family). “I love watching birds, but put your bird feeders up, put the pet food inside, put the grain inside.”
One step that Red Top Meadows’ resident and wildlife enthusiast Cindy Campbell is taking to protect Grizzly 399 is leaving her be.
“Wait until she gets back to the park to get your next photo,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to get as many people to take themselves out of her story right now as we can.”
Campbell said she’s both an optimist and realist. She’s celebrating small victories, like advocacy organizations educating the public and the fact that Grizzly 399 and her brood steered clear of problems since crossing Wyoming Highway 22.
Still, the griz family’s whereabouts are concerning, she said, and their proximity to residential settings like schools and other places where people congregate is worrisome.
“Is this going to be a new norm, is it sustainable and can we do this?” Campbell said. “We’ll find out.”
Combs, at Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said she’s not naïve about the challenges of hosting grizzly bears in populated areas. She called the situation “tricky.”
“This is tough, for sure, especially with these bears that are so beloved,” Combs said. “We need to really pull out all the stops here and come together as a community to help these five bears not get adjusted to human foods. Now is the time to do that.”
Louisa Willcox has spent much of her career advocating on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies, and she’s blogged about Grizzly 399 and her southerly travels at length. Her feeling is that state and federal agencies also need to adapt to give the wandering celebrity grizzly the best chance at surviving a sojourn in the southern valley.
“While it is wonderful that citizens and conservationists are doing what they can to educate the public, and that Mike Boyce of Wyoming Game and Fish is helping to make sure people behave respectfully, that is far from enough,” Willcox wrote in an email. “We need nothing short of a transformation in the way that the five agencies responsible for the fates of Jackson’s grizzly bears — Grand Teton park, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish, Bridger-Teton forest and Wyoming Department of Transportation — work together and view their duty to grizzlies and the public.”
Grizzly 399 and cubs left the Combs property after about five minutes. They padded across the deck of an outbuilding before slipping out of sight.
“You could tell mom was like, ‘Hey, we’re not chilling here,’” Jesse Combs said. “She was moving the show along.”
In seven years of living in a home tucked up against the forest the Combs family has seen plenty of wildlife in their yard. They’ve witnessed cow moose raise their calves, seen mountain lions scoot through and even watched a pair of bald eagles slowly depopulate their trout pond.
Now they’re cautiously embracing their new neighbors: grizzly bears.
“Now we know,” Jesse Combs said. “We know there’s grizzlies down here, and that she’s moving around.”
Everyone in the neighborhood, he said, has a responsibility to adjust.