JACKSON, Wyo. — Steve Franklin’s lifetime bucket list included both being in Grand Teton National Park on opening day and witnessing the Yellowstone region’s most famous bear, grizzly 399, the day she emerged from her den.
The Glendale, Arizona, resident and wildlife photographer checked one of the boxes Monday, when he was in with the first wave of visitors after a seven-week coronavirus-prompted closure. A grizzly 399 sighting was likely not in the cards, an improbability he confirmed early in the day by chatting with a ranger who told him the matriarch 24-year-old sow had not yet been spotted this year. Then, just after 2:30 p.m., Franklin was driving to fetch a late lunch when he spotted something moving on the banks of a swollen Pilgrim Creek.
“We’re crossing the bridge getting ready to go back, and she happened to be right there,” Franklin said. “I got two of my wishes on one day! And she has four cubs? Give me a break.”
Grizzly 399, he recalled, was pacing about 100 yards off the road along the banks, trying to find a safe spot for her brood of youngsters to ford, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.
Scores of others soon watched in awe at a grizzly bear who has unknowingly made herself famous by dwelling in roadside areas of Grand Teton Park for the past 14 years. Four cubs is her largest known litter yet, and she’s rearing the youngsters at an age near the upper limit of a typical grizzly bear lifespan.
At first, just 10 or so people gathered at Pilgrim Creek, where two sub-adult grizzlies had passed through a couple hours earlier shortly after the Moran gate opened.
“By about 3:30, it was bonkers,” Jackson resident Erika Lingle said from North Park Road’s shoulder.
Lingle and a couple hundred others lingered in the area even hours after the five-grizzly clan had disappeared from sight, hopeful they’d reemerge into view.
Longtime grizzly lensman Tom Mangelsen was staked out near Pacific Creek on Monday afternoon when a text popped up prompting him to swiftly head west.
“I got here in just enough time to see her head across the sandbar,” said Mangelsen, whose photos adorn the 2015 book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.”
“Lesser bears would have been lucky to make it to age 24,” he said, “but I think she’s obviously extraordinary.”
Mangelsen said he had a hunch a large litter was in store, because when 399 lumbered toward the den last fall she was slinging a grizzly gut that hung “2 inches from the ground.” After driving off her grown 2-year-old cubs, the reliably seen sow was spotted in June mating with grizzly 679, a big boar that goes by Bruno.
“I was quite optimistic she would have cubs,” Mangelsen said. “I was betting everybody that she would have three, because everyone was downplaying her because of her age.”
The data supports proclamations that bear 399’s quad-cub litter is a rarity, no less for a nearly quarter-century-old bruin.
From 2004 to 2018, just three litters of four youngsters were detected in total by Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team researchers on observation flights, according to the research group’s annual reports. Chuck Schwartz, a former study team leader, found that just 2% of all litters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem consisted of four cubs, according to a 2006 study. (The proportion of one-cub litters was 26%, two-cub litters 51% and three cub litters 21%.)
Grizzly 399 has proven she’s more fecund than most of her species, having reared triplets three times before. Although she’s a veteran mother, there’s likely a bumpy road ahead for her four young ones.
“Her one cub, Snowy, was hit just a half a mile down the road here (in 2016),” Mangelsen said.
It’s not known what’s become of all of 399’s 17 documented cubs, but they’ve been more under the microscope than most grizzly bear offspring. Both in their youngest years and adulthood, they’ve died from vehicle strikes, illegal shooting and being euthanized for depredating cattle and other habituated behavior.
For grizzly bear cubs generally, it’s about a coin flip — a 55% chance — they will survive to see the next year, according to study team data.
Grizzly 399’s emergence Monday marked the third time she’s come into view precisely on May 18, Mangelsen said.
“Whenever she has cubs of the year, she waits,” he said. “It’s amazing that this exact day, she comes out.”
With Grand Teton’s gates open, the grizzly-watching scene is now in high gear in the park. Bear 679, AKA Bruno, has been spotted, and 399’s daughter, grizzly 610, has also been out and about with a pair of 2-year-old cubs, according to park rangers. The sow known as Blondie could also potentially emerge with a fresh litter of cubs, having dispelled her 2-year-olds last summer.
“And with 399 having four cubs now, this is going to be insanity,” Mangelsen said.
All throughout Tuesday morning, there was a “bear jam” in the same area grizzly 399 was seen around Pilgrim Creek the afternoon before. There reportedly wasn’t even a grizzly to be seen — just the possibility of one.
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