‘Queen Of The Tetons’: New Documentary Of Grizzly 399 Released

The world's most famous bear, Grizzly 399, is now a movie star. A new documentary, “399: Queen of the Tetons,” just debuted and will make a run on the national wildlife film festival circuit before being released on a streaming service.

Mark Heinz

February 22, 20245 min read

Grizzly 399 and her four cubs
Grizzly 399 and her four cubs (Courtesy: Tom Mangelsen)

Even in her golden years, Wyoming’s beloved Grizzly 399 is breaking new ground in her latest role as a movie star.

A new documentary film titled “399: Queen of the Tetons” centers on an incredible period for her — after she emerged from her den in spring 2020 with an almost unprecedented set of quadruplet cubs.

But the film “also goes back and looks at her whole life,” renowned wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen told Cowboy State Daily.

The film recently debuted before a packed house at the Big Sky Documentary Fim Festival in Missoula, Montana, and was received enthusiastically, he said.

A shortened version is expected to air on PBS in May. After a run on the wildlife film festival circuit across the country, the full version will likely be released on a streaming service — although it’s not certain when that will be.

Mangelsen has probably photographed and filmed 399 more than anybody, and he’s featured prominently in the film, which was inspired by his work.

“By default I’m her (399’s) documentarian,” he says in a trailer for the film. “Some people would call it an obsession. I can’t deny that.”

‘They Wanted To Know More And More About Her’

Mangelsen first spotted 399 in fall 2006, and was immediately fascinated with her.

Her showing up at that time was a big deal, he said.

“There hadn’t been any resident grizzly bears in Teton National Park for 50 years,” he said.

Grizzly 399 quickly gained fame and admiration because she made herself highly visible. She developed the habit of taking her cubs near roadsides. She was apparently unconcerned with the presence of humans, and became known for causing epic “bear jams” as people stopped to gawk at the mamma bear and her cubs.

And Mangelsen was there all along, taking countless photos and videos of 399 and her various cubs over the years and sharing them with the world.

Most recently, he released a book, “Grizzly 399: The World's Most Famous Mother Bear” along with writer Todd Wilkinson.

About two and a half years ago, Mangelsen took documentary director Elizabeth Leiter and executive producer Kim Woodard on a tour of Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

“We started talking about 399, and they wanted to know more and more about her,” Mangelsen said, and that’s how the idea for the film hatched.

Watch on YouTube

‘We Tried To Be Fair To Everyone’

The film isn’t merely a recounting of 399’s life, it also delves into the larger topic of grizzly bears, particularly in light of efforts to have grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho delisted from endangered species protection.

Mangelsen opposes delisting and grizzly bear hunting seasons, and the film’s trailer indicates that its narrative leans that way.

It features biologist Chris Servheen, who was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years. Servheen previously told Cowboy State Daily that he initially favored desisting grizzlies, but now opposes it.

However, the film also features ranchers, hunters and others with differing views.

“We tried to be fair to everybody,” Mangelsen said.

‘She Bit Him In The Butt’

The movie also features interviews with numerous other people, including famed anthropologist Jane Goodall, as well as a man who was once attacked by 399.

Many years ago, the man stumbled upon 399 and three cubs feeding on an elk carcass.

“She just bit the guy in the butt, and he didn’t suffer any real damage. And he’s the one that really wanted to save her,” Mangelsen said.

It was Servheen’s call at the time whether to kill 399 because of the attack, and the victim pleaded for the bear to be spared because he knew the incident was his fault, Mangelsen said.

“I thank God that he did that (stood up for 399). Because that was early on, only a year or two in, and we could have lost all this time with her,” Mangelsen said.

‘She’s Never Failed Us’

Nobody knows the exact date of 399’s birth, but it was likely during the month of January. That means she turned 28 last month, which is a considerably advanced age for a grizzly, especially a mama bear.

She thrilled the world last May when she emerged with a new cub that Mangelsen named Spirit.

Grizzly 399 and Spirit disappeared into the backcountry in November, presumably to den up for the winter. At her age, there’s certainly no guarantee that she’ll pull through the winter and emerge again for her adoring throngs in the spring.

But Mangelsen’s confident she will.

“She’s never failed us. She went in to the winter really healthy, and the cub was really fat,” he said. “If she made it back into her den, I’m pretty confident she’ll come back out with the cub in the spring.”

For those who may not know much about 399, the documentary will introduce them to what Mangelsen said in the trailer he’s known for years: “She’s just one damn special bear.”

An image from the trailer for the documentary "399: Queen of the Tetons."
An image from the trailer for the documentary "399: Queen of the Tetons." (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter