Within the first few hours of grizzly bear 399’s inaugural 2019 public appearance, photographer Tom Mangelsen caught a glimpse of one of her cubs somersaulting through the snow down a steep hillside.
Although the famous sow bruin didn’t quite engage in those acrobatics, she also didn’t shy away from playfully engaging her two youngsters, now 2 years old and likely in their last summer with mom.
“She was going up to them and licking them and sniffing them,” Mangelsen said. “They’re seriously like three kids, running around and playing.”
Now 23 years old — bona fide senior citizen territory for a grizzly — bear 399 was spotted Wednesday for the first time this year, descending from her Teton Wilderness den site, reportedly taking advantage of a compacted snow path left behind by a snowmobile on Pilgrim Creek Road. Word of her whereabouts spread quickly, and by midafternoon videos and photos flooded social media celebrating the return of a grizzly bear that has been reliably visible in Grand Teton National Park for 12 straight years.
“The Queen is alive and well!” photographer Jack Bayles posted to Facebook, captioning a widely shared clip of the bear family.
Bear 399’s emergence coincided with what park spokeswoman Denise Germann described as the onset of the ordinary busy season for grizzly viewing in Teton Park. The first reported Jackson Hole grizzly sighting came over a month ago, when warden Kyle Lash snapped a pic of a bruin on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, but until now activity has been minimal.
“We’re just starting to see more bears out and active and visible,” Germann said. “That’s just beginning.”
The volunteer-based “wildlife brigade” is also out to help enforce viewing rules, she said, which include not parking in the middle of the road and getting no closer than 100 yards to bears and wolves.
Staying beyond that distance was not a challenge for Moran resident Trish Lavin, who on Thursday watched 399 and her cubs saunter over a very frozen Jackson Lake on her way to Elk Island. Using optics, she took in the show from Signal Mountain.
“The last word I had is that she crossed the lake again,” she said, “heading toward Spalding Bay.”
When she’s been visible, Lavin said, grizzly 399 has had her head down and been on the move. Although fleeting, she’s cherished the moments.
“I love the bears, and it’s always exciting to see them,” Lavin said. “We’re really fortunate. They’re beautiful animals.”
Grand Teton’s faithful wildlife watchers are also eagerly awaiting the possible return of grizzly 610. Born to 399 in 2006, grizzly 610, like her mother, learned to make use of roadside habitat in the park, a behavior that enabled their rise to fame. But after a 12-year run in her ordinary haunts, last summer there were no confirmed sightings of 610, which lacked a GPS tracking collar. It’s all speculation, Mangelsen said, but there are a couple prevailing theories.
“The optimistic spin is that she could have had cubs and stayed in the high country,” Mangelsen said. “The pessimistic spin is she probably got shot. My thoughts are that if she doesn’t show up this year with new cubs or cubs from last year, then she’s gone.”