By Mark Heinz, public lands and wildlife reporter
It’s been more than a month since a verified sighting of the famed Grizzly 399.
She grabbed headlines again in July when one of her four recently-weaned sub-adult cubs was killed by game wardens for alleged dangerous behavior toward humans.
“Nobody knows where she is,” Jack Bayles, a co-founder of Team 399 – who photographs and videos the grizzly for her worldwide fan base – told Cowboy State Daily on Friday. The last verified sightings were in early July. “We think she’s somewhere up in the northern end of the park (Grand Teton National Park).”
Grizzly 399 gained fame about a decade ago, after she became one of the first grizzlies to frequent roadsides in Teton Park. Previously, tourists had to go to Yellowstone National Park for good opportunities to watch grizzlies.
“In years past, when she’s separated from her cubs, she’s disappeared during the summer,” he said. “I don’t think she’s all that far away, she’s just not being seen.”
Romance could be involved, Bayles said, because 399 is known to prefer privacy for courtship and mating. A portly male grizzly known as “Bruno” was seen courting 399 earlier this year; he is thought to have sired some of the many cubs 399 has raised over the years.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also hasn’t heard about any activity from 399, or any of her three surviving offspring, said large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson. It’s assumed the mother bear has been quietly spending time off the beaten path in Teton Park.
Two of 399’s surviving offspring were spotted on separate occasions in July, Bayles said.
It’s unusual for grizzlies to have more than two cubs at a time; 399 had four in 2020. They were weaned and separated from their mother earlier this year.
On July 12, Game and Fish agents captured and killed 399’s male sub-adult cub known as 1057. The young bruin had been involved in 13 instances of “dangerous behavior” toward humans in and around rural homes, according to the Game and Fish.
It’s not the first time 399 has lost offspring, Bayles said. Two of her cubs were struck and killed by vehicles, one in 2012 and the other in 2016.
“The big question is, does she have cubs next year?” he said.
If she did indeed run off with Bruno, it could happen.
At age 26, 399 is one of the oldest grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but could still be healthy enough to bear more cubs, Bayles said.
Grizzlies typically live 20-30 years in the wild, Bayles said. The biggest cause of mortality among older bears is tooth decay.
“Their teeth wear out. So, they can’t eat and they starve to death,” he said.
From what Bayles has been able to ascertain by looking at 399 through telephoto lenses, her teeth are still in fairly good shape.
The bear gained fame through her habit of shepherding her young cubs to spots right next to busy roadways, apparently unfazed by crowds of gawking tourists.
That could be because she’s a clever mother, Bayles said. Male grizzlies will kill other males’ cubs in an attempt to breed with females. So, 399 might have figured out that the big males in her home range weren’t likely to follow her and her young toward the crowds.