As It Happens

This bear is one of the oldest grizzlies in the wild — and she just had 4 new cubs

After yet another winter in hibernation, the bear known as 399 — one of the oldest and most famous grizzlies in the world — has emerged alive and victorious from her den in Grand Teton National Park. And this time, she brought four new cubs.

'It was a huge surprise for everyone,' says photographer who spotted the 24-year-old bear

Grizzly 399 stands to get a better look at the growing crowd of bear watchers while her four cubs play in Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. (Thomas D. Mangelsen/www.mangelsen.com)
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It's a feat some believed she'd never achieve.

But after yet another winter in hibernation, the bear known as 399 — one of the oldest and most famous grizzlies in the wild — has emerged alive and victorious from her den in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

And this time, she brought four new cubs.

"It was a huge surprise for everyone because, at 24 years old, most people didn't think she would possibly have any more cubs at all," Thomas Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer and conservationist from Jackson, Wyo., told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I was optimistic that she would have three cubs, but I would never [have] believed in [four]," he said, adding that quadruplets are rare for grizzlies.

Mangelsen has been photographing 399 for several years, and authored the book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which chronicles the famed grizzly mother's life.

Wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen in Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. (Sue Cedarholm)

He recalls spotting her again for the first time this year in mid-May, as she made her way back from her den high up in the mountains, and down to the Pilgrim Creek.

For a bear that already has several children and grandchildren, Mangelsen said 399 is still quite healthy.

"I noticed in a couple of pictures when she was standing up that her lower teeth were quite worn. But her canines, which are important ones, are still in good shape," he said.

Secret to success in the wild

Bear 399 has quite the following. She's got her own Twitter and Facebook pages, and even has a fan in renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. (Mangelsen made sure to update her on the bear's status as soon as he noticed her emerge from hibernation this spring.) 

But what makes 399 so special to Mangelsen is how she's maintained her natural behaviour in the wild despite spending much of her time near the roadside, where thousands of visitors travel each year to catch a glimpse of her.

"So far, she hasn't been fed or conditioned to seek food," he said. "So she's been lucky in that way."

It's likely 399 also realizes male bears don't visit the roadside as often, Mangelsen added, something that allows her to avoid those that may want to breed or kill her cubs.  

"So she finds comfort being around people, I think, and knows that they're not going to harm her," he said.

Grizzly 399 and her four cubs rest among sagebrush in Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. (Thomas D. Mangelsen/www.mangelsen.com)

However, the grizzly mother doesn't live risk-free. 

In the 1970s, her species was considered threatened, and was offered protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Today, grizzlies have risen in number again, although Mangelsen worries their population is beginning to flatten.

The photographer says that if more people could watch bears like 399 and see how they behave — with intelligence and emotion — they'd realize they're a lot like us.

"She walks up to a highway, looks both ways to see if any cars are coming and she'll lead the cubs across the highway for safety," Mangelsen said. "And sometimes if the cubs are left on the other side of the highway, she will tell them to stay there in her own language."

That behaviour is rare in most animals, he said.

"We just don't give them credit."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. 

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