Grizzly 399 & the Fab 4

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On our first full day in Grand Teton National Park, we found ourselves in a bear jam that evening. We pulled into a parking lot and found a safe place among park volunteers, long-lens toters, and bear enthusiasts until the elusive grizzly made its way out of the willows. According to a volunteer, the sub-adult grizzly was thought to be one of Blondie’s (#793) cubs now on its own, which thrilled me since I had photographed her and her two tiny cubs in 2018 and it started my love for the Grand Tetons and its famous grizzlies.

After photographing her for an hour and a half, we moved on, only to find ourselves in another bear jam. This time it was much longer, which probably meant one thing – Grizzly 399 and her four cubs. Iconic 399 is known as the queen of the Tetons. Her reputation for being a wise and wonderful mother bear who raises her cubs close to the road brings thousands of guests to the park every year for a glimpse. (Her proclivity for raising them closer to humans and away from aggressive male bears in more remote areas is said to contribute to her offspring’s survival.)

At 24, this matriarch is estimated to have had up to 17 cubs, including three sets of triplets. When she emerged from hibernation this spring with four cubs trailing behind her, she caused quite the stir, making headlines around the world. I even texted my girlfriends here in Indiana, “399 is out of hibernation and she has 4 cubs!!!”

That night as we waited, we heard from other onlookers that rangers had the road closed ahead because 399 and the cubs were crossing. We waited a few more minutes, and the line began to move. As we got closer, the spaces along the roadside were filling up, and the rangers had placed cones to keep all of us at a distance and safe.

I gathered my gear, got out of the car, and there she was on the right side of the road inside the sagebrush about 100 yards away. The four little ones took turns peeking over the balsamroot as their mother dug for roots, grubs,and gophers. My family and I stayed for an hour and a half among hundreds of 399 fans, a beautiful sunset over the Tetons behind us. Cameras went wild each time she looked up from foraging or a baby bear stood.

Then shortly after sunset, 399 decided to cross the road with the cubs.

“Okay, everyone, this is it. I need you to step back five more feet and create a new line,” the ranger instructed us.

As we all moved back, fingers ready on shutters, the matriarch stepped out of the sagebrush. It was the first time I’d seen her whole face and body at once – and wow!

Losing so much light, I had my camera pushed to its limits, but I fired away as she looked both ways and then crossed, looking back to the cubs with a signal. Then one little face emerged from the grasses and scampered across the highway, followed by two wrestling siblings. But where was number four? Everyone held their breath as 399 waited in an adjacent parking lot with her three cubs. Then the fourth popped out, bouncing after his siblings, shutters going off again in relief.

Until that moment I had been excited but I could breathe. Once 399 crossed with the cubs though, I found myself fogging up my viewfinder and trying to catch my breath. What a privilege to witness this little corner of creation and its majesty, its sheer beauty and will wrapped up in a wonderful grizzly mother and four growing cubs. It’s a night that stays with me here in Indiana, one that magnifies the importance of conservation and protection of these beautiful bears and our nation’s wild places. Long live the queen.

Jen Ritchie

I'm a nature photographer who loves capturing beautiful landscapes and wildlife from our yearly trips out West and parks here closer to home.

1 Comment

  1. Gui Alinat on June 26, 2020 at 6:30 pm

    Pretty awesome. Thanks.

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