When Grizzly 399 emerged from hibernation Tuesday with a new cub, her worldwide fanbase was thrilled.
At age 27, she could be the oldest grizzly momma ever, wildlife photographer Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven told Cowboy State Daily.
However, that raises a potentially troubling question — will Wyoming’s A-list celebrity bear live long enough to raise her new cub to independence?
Cubs usually separate from their mothers at age 2, meaning 399 will be 29 before she’s once again an empty nester. It’s also unusual for grizzlies to live until 30.
A Good Chance She Will
Grizzlies 30 and older are unusual, but hardly unheard of, retired federal ecologist and bear expert Chuck Neal of Cody told Cowboy State Daily.
“The longest-lived grizzly on record reached age 38, in Glacier National Park,” Neal said. “Based on what I know, there’s no reason why 399 can’t raise this cub.”
That’s because it’s been reported that 399’s teeth are still in decent shape, and good teeth are critical to a grizzly longevity, Neal said.
Her Chompers Still Have Some Miles Left On Them
Vangoidtsenhoven, who has tracked and photographed 399 for years, agrees. Her teeth are starting to show some wear but should still last a while.
“399's teeth of course are showing her age and are getting worn,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “At her age, 27, it's very likely this cub will be her last offspring, especially since grizzlies lose the ability to reproduce around the age of 29. When she kicks out this one in two years from now, she'll be 29.”
Fresh meat should be on the grizzly menu soon, he added.
“Elk will start calving soon, which provides a great, and relatively easy, source of protein for the bears,” he said. “Since starvation is a main reason of death for grizzlies at old age, her teeth are the main source of concern. That being said, her teeth don't seem to hinder her as she grazes and feeds as normal.”
Without Momma, Cub Won’t Survive
If 399 meets her fate before the as-yet unnamed cub reaches at least age 2, the cub’s chances of survival are slim, Wyoming Game and Fish Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily.
“Cubs are born in the den at the end of January after delayed implantation in the fall,” he said. “Grizzly bear cubs of the year den with their mother and emerge as yearlings and spend that following year with the female, so as yearlings they go into the den with the maternal female.
“That spring, as 2-year-olds they will emerge from the den and after some commingling will set off on their own, sometimes encouraged by the female.”
Bears orphaned before then rarely survive, Thompson added.
“If a maternal female dies early in the process with cubs of the year, they have very little chance of survival. We have some evidence of cubs of the year in the fall surviving without a mother,” he said.
Roadside Show ‘A Mixed Blessing’
Vangoidtsenhoven said that 399 appears to be in good health this week “and isn’t skinny.”
In fact, she’s in better shape than one of her previous offspring, he said.
“Grizzly 610, her daughter who is 17 and who gave birth to triplets last winter — and has been breastfeeding those three over the past winter in the den — looks much skinnier,” Vangoidtsenhoven said.
Grizzly 399 is popular and frequently watched because she likes taking her cubs near roadsides.
That proximity to humans is “a mixed blessing, a double-edged sword,” Neal said.
On one hand, it helps keep the cubs safe from “marauding male grizzlies” that might be tempted to kill the cubs, he said.
“The fan base she has serves as a protective shield,” Neal said.
“The other side of it is that she’s in potential danger every time she gets near a road, because roads can be deadly for her and her cub,” he added. “And they can continue to be a danger to the cub after its on its own, because that cub has been conditioned to be near roads.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.