This grizzly family comes with paparazzi | Panda Anku

My neighbor is famous.

She has 50,000 followers on Facebook and a recent post on her page had 4,200 likes, 250 comments and 400 shares in one day. If you google them, you will get about 125 million results. She was born in 1996 and had 18 children including quadruplets who were born in 2020. She is Bear 399, the most famous grizzly in the northern Rocky Mountains.

I’ve seen videos of Bear 399 and her offspring, including one from a surveillance camera at the police station in downtown Jackson, Wyoming that showed five large bears strolling down a street. But I never saw the family in person. I would love to, but part of me believes it’s my responsibility as a nature lover not to try to find her.

People searched for her that spring. They knew where she was, so 15 to 20 cars were waiting when the famous fiver showed up in Grand Teton National Park. Word spread quickly and soon about 100 vehicles lined the road to catch a glimpse of the group.

The bears are undeniably cute. They have a rolling, dove-shaped gait that is amusing to watch. The cubs frolic around Mama as she continues on her way, ignoring their antics but always careful to keep them nearby. Their faces are expressive, their bodies plump and cuddly. They play like children with a harried mother who is easily overwhelmed by her disorderly brood.

But therein lies a problem. Wildlife biologists have chosen not to name the animals they study, instead giving them numbers for identification so we don’t humanize them. But that didn’t work on 399.

Her life story and personality have endeared her to people around the world, especially in her home near Jackson Hole. She seems used to human attention. We relate to her life, children, and adventures, ignoring that she is a feral grizzly bear. We forget that she can be as dangerous to us as we are to her.

Hilary Cooley, the grizzly bear rescue coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a meeting of state and federal wildlife and land managers last August, “The future is not looking bright for these guys. They were in big trouble.”

During the life of the quadruplets, they have been introduced to cattle feed, human garbage, and backyard beehives. This happened five times in 2020. In 2021, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 17 times. They have walked through neighborhoods and often cross freeways. You are close to popular trails where people hike, bike, and run.

399 had an encounter with a hiker in 2007 when the man – a friend of mine from Lander – stumbled upon them with their young feeding on a moose carcass. My friend doesn’t blame 399 for attacking him which caused some nasty bites. Still, it was a spooky experience, and that’s what seems to be missing from the media frenzy surrounding 399.

She’s not a toy. She is not a person. She is an unpredictable, large, omnivorous, intelligent animal who has discovered that it finds easy sustenance around humans and continues to teach this ability to its children.

We’ve probably all heard the expression, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Studies show that eating human food or garbage can turn a feral bear into a foodborne one. Suddenly, the animal that depends on a varied diet for survival has a new, easily accessible tasty food source: from a garbage can, a bird feeder or a beehive. These bears become less suspicious of humans and often become aggressive over time.

To his credit, Teton County, Wyoming updated its land development regulations. Beginning in July, residents will be asked to bear-proof dumpsters, cattle feed, bird feeders, compost and beehives.

Still, Hilary Cooley, who works to save grizzlies, is not optimistic. She has told reporters that she believes one, two or all family members are likely to have serious conflicts with humans at some point in their lives, leaving wildlife managers with a limited range of options. And to compound the problem, the family has moved south from the park, toward trouble.

There are many things people can do to prevent this from happening. For me it means remembering that 399 is wild. It means not getting in my car to attend the bear jam. It means making sure my property or campsite is bear proof. It means wearing bear spray.

It means trying not to be part of the problem.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, authorsontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering lively conversations about the West. She writes in Wyoming.

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit it online or see our guidelines for submitting it by email or post.

Leave a Comment