A bear’s life

How one Wyoming grizzly became the face of her species’ success — and failure

Jim Laybourn was up before the sun. It was springtime, around 5 a.m., and the birds were lively, but otherwise, Grand Teton National Park was all quiet and most people staying at the historic Jackson Lake Lodge were still asleep. This was 2006, when pre-dawn starts for a day’s outing in the national park weren’t the requirement they are today. Laybourn’s groggy-eyed clientele wondered why they were leaving so early. They wanted to see grizzlies, though, and back then, if you wanted to see a grizzly, you drove north to Yellowstone. 

The Tetons have always been a rich habitat for wildlife — elk, bison, black bears, moose — and grizzlies once roamed these mountains, too. But by 1975, when the grizzly was added to the endangered species list, the bears had disappeared from the Tetons altogether. At the time, biologists in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem counted only 136 of them, all in Yellowstone National Park. That’s why Laybourn, a wildlife guide, was packing his brown 1997 GMC Suburban so early that spring morning.

After everyone on the wildlife tour had buckled their seatbelts, Laybourn slid into the bench seat behind the steering wheel and drove out of the lodge’s covered parkway. But just as he turned onto the highway junction, Laybourn saw something move. Out of the darkness, a mother grizzly and three cubs stepped onto the road. Laybourn was stunned. He had no idea grizzlies were living in Grand Teton National Park, let alone a mother with three cubs.

“I knew that was something special right there,” he says.

The grizzly Laybourn saw that morning is often said to be the most famous grizzly in the world. She’s easily recognized by the millions of people who visit Grand Teton National Park. Over the years, her many fans and admirers have followed her story through its highs and lows, celebrating when she emerges from hibernation in the spring with a new litter of cubs, mourning her losses, and awaiting with suspense in moments of uncertainty. She’s a beautiful bear, with a streak of blonde fur hugging her shoulders. But the official way to identify her is by the number on the tag that biologists gave her when she was five years old. She is known as Grizzly 399.  

The reason why 399 is so famous is that she has lived close to humans for most of her life, giving the public a rare glimpse of her day-to-day routines, allowing us to watch as she’s raised generations of cubs — teaching them how to forage for food and navigate across the landscape. As far as biologists know, she’s birthed 18 cubs in her 27 years. Last spring, she made headlines when she emerged from hibernation with her newest cub, making her the oldest known female grizzly to reproduce in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. 

Conservationists call her an ambassador for her species.

She was among the first grizzlies to return to Grand Teton National Park, becoming the face of the Endangered Species Act’s success. To some, she’s now the face of its shortcomings during a pivotal moment for grizzly bears in America. 

Joanna Lisowiec for Deseret News

After 49 years, state officials in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are now seeking to remove grizzlies from the endangered species list and lift their protections. This February marks the end of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s one-year review period for considering the delisting, and a decision will be made. The overall grizzly population remains under 2,000 today — an impressive recovery from 136, but a far cry from the estimated 50,000 that lived in North America, with habitat stretching from Alaska to Mexico in the early 1800s. In an attempt to restore some of that original habitat, federal agencies drafted and released a plan in October to reintroduce grizzlies to Washington, near North Cascades National Park. Tangled among stories of bear attacks, increasingly small buffers between urban areas and wilderness, and hopes to return fragile ecosystems to their healthiest states, both proposals have been met with controversy on all fronts.  

The paradox for 399 is that while her story has helped drive worldwide attention for grizzly conservation, every step she takes in front of a crowd is a huge risk to her life, and — as the face of a species — the reputation of all grizzlies. 

There’s a deep, innate part of us that wants to believe we are still connected to wild places and creatures, despite the ways modern development buffers us from that world.

Tracking Grizzly 399

Laybourn says that day he saw 399 for the first time was the day his life changed. The encounter was so unusual, he knew he wanted to find her and her cubs again. He became so occupied by 399 that he quit his seasonal jobs building homes and guiding wildlife tours to become a filmmaker so he could spend more time looking for her. Eventually, he produced a short documentary about her story, about the fine line she walks teetering between wilderness and human development. He filmed 399 threading a path through the forest with her cubs running ahead, and leading her cubs through a gauntlet of parked cars and people. One shot pans behind a wall of people standing along the road, watching her hunt down an elk. 

“The celebrity was unavoidable because she’s so visible,” Laybourn says. “But I think it’s a conscious trade-off that she has made. That she can put up with hundreds of people watching her, making all sorts of noise, acting stupid. She still just goes on about her business. It’s not like she spends her time staring back at us. She’s foraging. She’s teaching her cubs different food sources. And just living her life.”

Others caught on to 399’s presence in the park around the same time as Laybourn. Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer, first saw 399 and three of her cubs near Oxbow Bend, a well-known site in Grand Teton National Park to see wildlife. He still spends countless hours searching for 399 and taking photographs of her. One year, he counted the days in the field he spent looking for her: 150. Grizzly 399 is Mangelsen’s muse. “She’s beautiful in ways we think the classic grizzly bear might be described,” Mangelsen says. “Her personality is calm, generally speaking. She’s very smart, intelligent.” 

It’s easy to project humanlike qualities onto 399. She’s a mother. Watching her lead her cubs, looking both ways as she crosses a road, is so easy to relate to. Humans anthropomorphize animals and assign them human qualities to relate to, and have empathy for, them. There might also be a deep, innate part of us that wants to believe we are still connected to wild places and creatures, despite the ways modern development buffers us from that world. If we can relate to animals, it makes it easier to believe that we can coexist alongside them. That’s part of 399’s allure, why so many people are so drawn to her. 

“The visitors that are coming to see these bears, I mean, we’re all human. We want to know the story,” says Justin Schwabedissen, Grand Teton National Park’s bear biologist. “We want to make those connections to these animals.” But 399’s relatability can be deceiving. It’s all too easy to forget that she is wild, unpredictable and has limits to her tolerance. “I think that a lot of times we do forget some of the biology behind these animals,” he adds.

Grizzly 399’s relatability can be deceiving. It’s all too easy to forget that she is wild, unpredictable and has limits to her tolerance.

Bear encounters

In June 2007, a teacher, Dennis VanDenbos, was hiking at Jackson Lake Lodge when he encountered 399 and her three cubs. After rounding a corner on the trail, he surprised the family as they were consuming the carcass of an elk calf. VanDenbos was too close. Grizzly 399 reacted and bit VanDenbos in the back. 

At that time, bear biologist Chris Servheen was the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Part of his job was deciding the fate of bears when they got into a conflict with a human. When a problematic bear is “removed,” wildlife officials can relocate the bear, place it in captivity or euthanize it. When the case of 399’s attack on VanDenbos came to Servheen, however, he decided to leave her and her cubs alone. It came down to this: He believed 399 was acting as a bear should act, hunting for food with her cubs in her natural environment. And VanDenbos, though he was injured, survived. 

Servheen calls the mauling a “natural aggressive incident.” Famous or not, Servheen says he made no exception for 399, gave her no special treatment. “Natural aggression is defense of food, surprise encounter or protecting cubs,” he says. “Bears that are aggressive in one of those three types of incidents, we tend to give a lot more leeway to.”

Still, it was a close call. If 399 ever went further, the outcome would be a different one. “It’s remarkable that she’s lived as long as she has, considering the hazardous area that she lives in,” Servheen says, noting that biologists don’t want to see grizzlies spend as much time so close to humans as 399 does. She’s not the model example of grizzly behavior — even though somehow, to many, she is just that.

To a grizzly bear, the concept of Grand Teton National Park doesn’t mean much. Schwabedissen says all grizzlies leave the park’s boundaries from time to time. Once bears cross the park’s boundary line, they enter the jurisdiction of a handful of federal, state and local agencies, as well as private and public lands, ranchers and hunters, tourists and second homeowners. Whenever 399 ventures beyond the park, law enforcement and wildlife officials are on alert. When she mauled VanDenbos in 2007, Grizzly 399 was still relatively unknown. She may not have gotten special treatment then, but she does now. Last year, 33 wildlife brigade volunteers logged more than 12,000 hours in the park, working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week during peak season, to monitor wild animals like 399 and ensure encounters with humans are avoided.

“There’s been a lot of effort that’s gone into maintaining her and keeping her alive,” Servheen says. “I want you to know that. A lot of state management agencies, park management agencies have gone to great lengths to try to secure her life and make sure that she stays out of trouble.” That may be so that the species can stay out of trouble at a vulnerable time, too.

Most everyone hopes that 399 will live the rest of her life in peace. But the odds of a peaceful ending to her story are slim.

The future of Grizzly 399

As grizzly populations become denser, young grizzlies, especially the two- and three-year-olds newly independent from their mothers, have to disperse farther away from the park to find the resources they need and establish a home range, Schwabedissen explains. Almost all of those younger grizzlies are pushing south or southeast — toward town. On a dark November night in 2021, Grizzly 399 and her four cubs were caught on security cameras roaming the empty streets of downtown Jackson. Footage shows the five grizzly bears walking right past the police station, the county jail, the courthouse. “She was in neighborhoods where people don’t really think about bears,” Luther Propst, Teton County Commissioner, says. “It was hair-raising.”

Of 399’s 18 cubs, 10 have died, all but two from human-related causes. Five of her offspring were euthanized by wildlife agencies because the grizzlies were getting into human foods or other human conflicts. Two were struck by vehicles. One was shot and killed by a hunter outside the boundary of Grand Teton in self-defense. These instances, in part, are some of the reasons why there are current efforts to delist grizzly bears, as well as resistance to reintroducing them in northern Washington.

Most everyone hopes that 399 will live the rest of her life in peace and that she’ll have a natural death whenever that time comes. The reality is that the odds of that kind of peaceful ending to her story are slim. Adult grizzlies have a much higher likelihood of dying at the hands of a human. So these days, Laybourn stays away and doesn’t go looking for 399 anymore. “Her celebrity is too much,” he says. Instead, he channels his passion for grizzlies into his work at Jackson Hole Bear Solutions, which gives Jackson residents bear-proof trash cans, helping to keep bears and people safe from each other. 

At the same time, he doesn’t fault people for wanting to have their moment with her. People want to connect with American nature and experience those imitable moments of awe. For decades now, 399 has given them that. She gave Laybourn the same gift on that dark morning in 2006. “When you drive into Teton Park and all of a sudden there’s a grizzly bear with her three cubs on the side of the road, you realize you’ve reached wild.”

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.