BILLINGS - Wyoming’s famous grizzly bear "399" appeared from her winter den last week, drawing crowds and accompanied by a single cub.
Speculation had been circulating for some time around the bear. Wildlife photographers familiar with her status and Wyoming guides wondered whether the 27-year-old matriarch would appear alone or with cubs.
It was a moment guide Bo Welden with Eco Tour Adventures said he wasn’t going to miss.
“I’ve been very fortunate enough to be working, or as you can imagine, someone who loves wildlife is just up there on my day off,” he said.
Weldon was among the first to grab captivating images and video of 399 emerging with her silver-collared cub.
Grand Teton National Park says that 399 is the oldest documented grizzly bear in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The likelihood that a bear can survive to the age of 27 and still reproduce is slim, but 399 is still doing it, overcoming the odds.
Her bloodline runs deep in Wyoming. She gave birth to triplets prior, and in 2020, she came out of her den with four cubs falling behind.
“She is a conundrum because she draws an unbelievable crowd,” said Welden.
Perhaps it’s because of her unpredictability, which is somehow also strategic in nature.
399 is known to stay close to busy roads with crowds of tourists in Grand Teton National Park. Welden said that she usually dens in an area known as Pilgrim Creek.
Her yearly appearance brought park rangers to prepare ahead of time, he says, by placing traffic cones in her path to brace for crowds.
“I think that the bear management team was going back and forth on the road and they saw her and I think they said, we need to put out cones because she comes closer to the road,” he said.
Photographers flock to the area each year, and Welden says with that comes stories of years past and what was captured.
“Most of it is oral histories being exchanged,” he said. “Because when she appears officially, especially at bear jam, there is so much speculation...Like when she came out with all four cubs lots of stories of ‘Well, I was the first to see her.’"
With that,t 399 also appears to parade her young through the crowd to a tourist’s delight.
Some like Welden believe it’s been years of concerted conservation that allows her and other wildlife to do so.
Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins said efforts have helped bear species thrive through active management and education.
“Grizzly bear 399 is an ambassador for her species and visitors travel from all over the world to see her and her cubs, so we must continue to implement the best bear safety practices for bears to thrive in the GYE,” said Jenkins.
Her proximity to people is why Weldon believes 399 knows something about keeping her offspring safe from adult male grizzlies, talking about how her offspring also have historically been seen roaming the same areas.
“They all stayed close to the road, because it kept the cubs safe, which is a heck of a strategy because she has this incredible history of getting her cubs to this subadult stage,” he said.
Her fame now comes with iconic social media accounts and even a handful of children’s books.
“I love seeing her and I think she offers an incredible value to Wyoming and to Grand Teton National Park,” he said.
Park officials say as the grizzly bear population expand, bears continue to disperse across their historical range, but also into more populated areas. They ask that all visitors do their part to help protect bears.
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