JACKSON — The way Hilary Cooley sees it, Grizzly 399 and her four cubs are now better positioned to stay alive and out of trouble until they den up for the winter.
That famous ursine family hasn’t necessarily changed its behavior. They’re still frequenting developed southern Jackson Hole, still exploiting unprotected human-related foods in areas that are poorly equipped to avert such conflicts. So what’s changed? Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, now has the advantage of tracking the grizzlies, two of which are newly fitted with GPS-equipped collars.
“It’s a lot easier,” Cooley told the News&Guide. “We’re testing out a nighttime schedule for monitoring, because she seems to be more active at night, and that’s when they’re getting into conflicts.”
Once a day, precise location data dumps into Cooley’s and other federal wildlife managers’ email inboxes, alerting them of the prominent bruins’ whereabouts during the previous 24 hours. That’s key, considering that the federal wildlife managers have committed to round-the-clock surveillance of the grizzly sow who’s been eschewing her traditional home range in Grand Teton National Park.
The collars fitted on two of Grizzly 399’s yearling cubs can also provide real-time locations, so long as there’s a line of sight between the five bears and the wildlife managers looking for them with very-high-frequency receivers.
“We’ll get the emailed map once a day, and then we’ll try to stay with her as best we can between those downloads,” Cooley said. “We can see if she visited a house, we can go to that house and see what happened, and then try to use that to educate people. But we’re also hoping to stay ahead of her a little bit.”
Since she started rearing her litters roadside in the national park 15 years ago, the spotlight on Grizzly 399 has grown. At age 25 she’s the oldest known female with offspring in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The last two years the matriarch bruin has pulled off a remarkable feat: Keeping four grown cubs — an extraordinarily large litter — alive, even while raising them amid highways, neighborhoods and ranches.
There’s often immense scrutiny of management decisions that affect Grizzly 399. Last week’s attempt at fitting the matriarch with a tracking collar was no exception.
“This was the most incredible act against 399 that I had ever seen, and there was no excuse for it,” Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen said Monday night in a panel discussion about grizzly management hosted by Explore Big Sky and the Mountain Journal. “It was aggressive, it was overdone and it was botched.”
The world-famous female bear, Mangelsen contended, hadn’t done anything that warranted being temporarily separated from three of her cubs, which was the outcome of Cooley and her colleagues’ efforts to trap them.
“They were just really [expletive] lucky that she came back,” Mangelsen said in an interview, “and the three cubs were reunited with them.”
According to Cooley it was Grizzly 399 and not her cubs who was the primary target of the trapping operation, which unfolded Saturday southwest of Hoback Junction near the Snake River. Five traps were set out near a road-killed animal the grizzly family had been feeding on, and it was the first time they’d really slowed down enough in a couple weeks to attempt a capture, she said.
“There was no way to force these wild animals to do what we wanted,” Cooley said. “It would have been great if we only caught 399 in a trap.”
But that wasn’t necessarily the expected outcome. Grizzly 399 has been trapped before and therefore would be more wary of the large trailer-mounted baited cage. So it wasn’t a shocker when three of the cubs wound up trapped instead. Two of the yearlings captured, grizzlies now known by ID numbers 1057 and 1058, were jabbed with pole-mounted syringes, sedated and fitted with the tracking collars. They were good-sized animals, weighing in at between 250 and 270 pounds. By 9 or 10 p.m., Cooley said, they were released, and shortly thereafter reunited with mom and their sibling.
Cooley has heard criticisms like those from Mangelsen in the days since the operation. Seemingly a hundred emails a day have flooded her inbox, with subject lines like “Unforgivable.”
“People don’t understand that the alternative is allowing her and her four yearlings to continue getting into conflicts, and by collaring her we’re trying to prevent that,” Cooley said.
Allegations of ulterior motivations, she said, are “offensive.”
“Do people really think we get into this career so we can go out and kill bears?” Cooley said. “It’s frustrating. And there’s lots of misinformation out there. I just ask people to think a little more strategically about it and don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
Cooley emphasized that her staff’s and partners’ focus is on chauffeuring the five grizzlies to the den safely this year. Although there are steps that could help Grizzly 399, her cubs and others bears coexist in the future — like beefing up and enforcing Teton County regulations that can prevent bear conflicts — those aren’t quick fixes.
“Teton County is not going to be cleaned up and ready for bears tomorrow, and it’s not going to happen next week,” Cooley said. “Meanwhile these bears are walking through neighborhoods.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot make landowners cooperate with their efforts to keep Grizzly 399 out of yards and away from conflict. Feeding grizzly bears, which are federally classified as “threatened,” is only a violation of the Endangered Species Act if it’s intentional, spokesman Joe Szuszwalak said. A case in which a moose-feeding Teton County resident wasn’t prosecuted for feeding eight grizzlies during 2020 supports the contention.
“We just don’t have the power as a federal agency to go out there and write tickets to people for garbage cans,” Szuszwalak said. “That’s not our jurisdiction.”
Between early August and late October, Grizzly 399 and her brood were documented getting into beekeepers’ honey five times and livestock feed on another five occasions. They’ve gotten into garbage, but only once that wildlife managers know of.
“Last night it sounds like she had an opportunity to get into garbage, but didn’t,” Cooley said Tuesday. “She just decided not to, and got into some chicken feed instead.”
Now that her marked cubs are conveying GPS data, officials know with better certainty when Grizzly 399 is on the move. Tuesday morning she was about 5 miles south of Jackson, east of Highway 89 on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“She moved north, which is good,” Cooley said. “But that was this morning. Right now I’m not sure where she is. Who knows where she’ll be tomorrow. We’ll try to keep up with her, though.”