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‘It’s a slippery slope’: Matriarch grizzly’s escalating behaviors worry wildlife managers

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Grizzly 399

Grizzly 399 and four of her cubs cross a road in Jackson Hole on Nov. 17. The well-known bear appears to be associating homes with human food, and her escalating behavior is worrying wildlife managers.

Grizzly 399 has always had a rebellious streak.

It was the bear’s determination to live along the road, where brood after brood of twin, triplet and now quadruplet cubs have been shielded from the deadly attention of male grizzlies, that turned her into one of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s biggest celebrities.

But the 25-year-old grizzly has picked up dangerous habits in her old age. After spending most of her life in Grand Teton National Park, where her worst infractions were the traffic jams caused by her frequent roadside appearances, 399 has developed a taste for human food. And, tailed by her four nearly 300-pound yearlings, she’s increasingly determined to find it.

“She’s been into conflict a lot,” said Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And no, she’s never been aggressive to any human, that we know of, and she’s not broken into anything. But it is a slippery slope.”

The agency declined to cite the cause, but the bear’s behavior changed abruptly last October — when Fish and Wildlife discovered that eight bears, including 399 and her cubs, were fed grain in a Jackson backyard.

That fall, on private land south of Grand Teton, she got into livestock feed and an apiary before returning to the park.

“We became a little bit concerned that she would do that again this year, because a bear learns where they found food, and we suspected that she found food down south and she might be back this year,” Cooley said. “And that’s what happened.”

Two grizzly bears run near a bison herd in Yellowstone National Park.

This year, 399’s behavior escalated, just as officials had feared. After leaving Grand Teton in late summer, she racked up roughly a dozen conflicts over the next couple of months as she and her four yearlings dined on livestock feed, grain, honey and garbage.

She now appears to be associating human dwellings with food, and has begun seeking it out near houses — especially ones where she’s found food before.

Being accustomed to humans isn’t as big of a problem in Grand Teton, where bears are expected, Cooley said, “but when she goes near houses, and feels comfortable eating the apples off the ground, 10 feet off somebody’s porch, and there’s five big bears there, that’s a problem.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, but her precarious situation evokes a line repeated often by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

For many food-conditioned grizzly bears, the conflicts continue to mount. Getting into beehives and livestock feed, as 399 has, gives way to property damage and aggression. It was a pattern that caused the death of one of her offspring last month, and of a 2-year-old bear believed to be her grandson this spring.

For her four yearlings, the pattern is starting even earlier.

“Young are with their moms for two years plus, and they learn everything that she’s teaching them, everything she knows, about where to live, what to eat, travel corridors,” Cooley said. “When you have young with a mother that gets into conflict, they are much more likely to get into conflict when they are on their own.”

If this was another bear, Cooley said, more intensive management options would be on the table for the mother and cubs — particularly relocation. But because 399 is the most beloved mother bear in the Greater Yellow Ecosystem, the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying a less-invasive, much more resource-intensive approach: surveillance and intervention.

Shortly after hazing the five bears this October — a means of negatively conditioning them — following conflicts in southern Jackson Hole, officials trapped three of the yearlings and radio-collared two. They wanted to collar 399, but after the experienced bear, who has already been captured nine times, evaded their traps, wildlife managers collared the cubs instead.

For the next couple of months, likely until the bears go to their den for the winter, surveillance teams will follow them. If 399 is headed for a residential area, they might try to intercept her; if she’s already getting into something, they’ll try to haze her away. If she’s frequenting a particular location, they’ll visit the homeowner, help to secure attractants and clean up any damage that’s already been done.

More than 1,000 grizzlies are estimated to inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For a single bear, it’s a huge commitment. But unless every attractant in the area is secured — something the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the authority to enforce — it’s one of few options to keep 399 from sealing her fate.

“This is a huge interagency effort, and everybody involved wants to get these bears to sleep,” Cooley said. “I’m not thinking about next year. This is a big enough task, to respond right now and prevent them from getting in conflict this year.”

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Bear's escalating behaviors worry wildlife officials

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