JACKSON — About an hour earlier, Grizzly 399 had crossed the road.
Her small, newly born cub of the year poked along behind her. When the duo approached a crowd of 60 or so wildlife watchers and photographers, Grand Teton National Park’s bear brigade sent the people packing.
After the bear disappeared into the forest to the west, Sam Bland, 65, took a breath.
“Super bear,” he said. “Super mom.”
That was the consensus Tuesday night in the fracas of vehicles, people and long, camouflage-bedecked camera lenses that lined the Teton Park Road near Pilgrim Creek, the area where the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s most famous bruin is thought to den over the winter — and where she typically reappears every spring. But when 399 emerged Tuesday night, a debut that wasn’t a sure thing given her relatively advanced age, she set a record.
Grizzly 399 is now the oldest studied grizzly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to have birthed a litter.
“She is now the oldest female grizzly bear to emerge with cubs of the year in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” said Justin Schwabedissen, Grand Teton National Park’s bear management specialist.
“She’s an ambassador for her species,” Schwabedissen said.
The record is based on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team data. WyoFile reported in March that 399 was set to break the record if she emerged from the den with a cub. At the time study team leader Frank van Manen said the oldest female known to have reproduced was 25. Grizzly 399 is 27.
“A special day in the world of the grizzly bear,” said Tom Mangelsen, a Jackson wildlife photographer who has famously documented 399’s travails for the past few decades. “Her honor and fame in grizzly bear history has been sealed. Never again will another like her come our way.”
The cub that 399 appeared with Tuesday is her 18th, spread across eight litters.
Eight of her offspring, including this year’s cub, are thought to be alive.
The famed grizzly matriarch appeared to be healthy, Schwabedissen and other onlookers said. And with only one cub, 399 will need to find less food for her brood than she did from 2020 to 2022, when she reared four offspring to independence. While raising those offspring, 399 took them on jaunts through developed areas in the southern stretch of the Jackson Hole valley. There the bear family got into compost, beehives and livestock feed. They were also illegally fed by a resident of the Solitude subdivision near Jackson Hole Airport.
With 399 having fewer mouths to feed, wildlife watchers were optimistic she will avoid human nosh.
“I was kind of glad,” Bland said. “Maybe she’ll have a little easier time this year rather than corralling four.”
With significant low-elevation snowfall, Schwabedissen said 399 has plenty of natural food up north, where her appearance Tuesday afternoon was nothing short of dramatic. Around 4:30 p.m. the News&Guide received its first tip that 399 was out — with twins, a rumor that appeared not to be true. At the time it was unclear who had seen a bear in the Pilgrim Flats area, and whether the animal was a black or grizzly bear.
Still, hundreds of people began gathering near Pilgrim Flats.
Seth Latka, a guide with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, passed through the area earlier Friday afternoon, returning from Yellowstone National Park. At the time, there was a bear jam with people parked on both sides of the road that stretched from Pilgrim Creek Road to about a mile south of the Pilgrim Creek Bridge. About 50 photographers were pointing lenses in every direction. Cars crawled along the highway.
Latka didn’t stop. But having seen 399 emerge four times, he thought the crowd was massive.
“It was probably the most intense I’ve seen,” Latka said.
That’s likely due to how passionately people feel about the bear. At 27, she’s up in years. The oldest female bears in the ecosystem have lived 30 or 31 years. Last year there was rampant speculation about the condition of 399’s teeth, which typically fall apart as grizzlies age — something onlookers observed in 399. But the famous bear’s body condition stayed strong, bucking a population-wide correlation between bad teeth and bad health.
Still, before Tuesday, the park’s last confirmed sighting of her was in mid-September.
That had 399 aficionados like Jill Hall worried.
“I cried,” Hall said of how she reacted when the bear emerged. “I thought she was dead.”
When 399 and her cub emerged near the Grand View Flats area, Grand Teton officials were able to confirm her identity based on black tags biologists affixed to her ear during a 2016 capture.
Matthew Ross, of Colorado, comes out every year to photograph wildlife. He saw 399 with the “quads” — the four cubs — both years she had them, including last year when he watched her kick them off.
He thought that would be the last time he saw 399. Ross was thrilled to catch a glimpse of her Tuesday.
“To see her again, it’s unbelievable,” Ross said.
His friend, Dwight Teter, of Michigan, compared getting a photo of 399 to getting a photo of Mark McGwire setting a major-league record for home runs in the late ’90s. He went to four games to get McGwire’s photo.
“It’s the same thing with this one,” Teter said. “You’ve got to get good pictures, because it’s iconic.”
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