LIVE Q&A with Grizzly 399 Filmmakers

13 May 2024 Off By Bambam

Grizzly 399 and three cubs walking down a road, Grand Teton National Park. Credit: © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Following the premiere of Grizzly 399: Queen of the Tetons on May 8, NATURE hosted a special LIVE post-premiere Q&A with the filmmakers and experts from the film. NATURE executive producer Fred Kaufman moderated a panel with producer Elizabeth Leiter, Guides of Jackson Hole’s Trevor Bloom, and renowned 399 photographer Thomas Mangelsen. The panel is still available to stream here on YouTube.

Below are some of our favorite questions from the panel:

Is Grizzly 399 out of hibernation? And if so, have you seen her?

(Tom Mangelsen) I have. And you never know if they make it, especially a bear that’s that old if they make it through hibernation. But she came out in good form. Her cub is quite large. She didn’t have to, or he didn’t, we don’t know what sex it is, but we call it Spirit. And Spirit didn’t have to share any milk or feeds from her mother through the den cycle. So she got doubly big, I think, but I just heard she was up by the oxbow bend about 10 minutes ago. So she’s out and about, mostly digging ground squirrels and voles and mice and grazing on fresh grass. So she’s in good shape.

For Tom, are there still the bear jams going on? Is everybody out there looking for her?

(Tom Mangelsen) Yeah, they are. They’re in force. It’s a big deal, of course. A lot of people are looking for her and a lot of people are excited. We were excited last week when she came out. And she’s been very sort of distant. She’s been in a place called Overlook, Blacktail Ponds Overlook. She’d been about 600 yards out for about 10 days. And today is the first day she left there. So of course, I just heard a few minutes ago that she was pretty close to the road. So for over a week, she’s been 600 yards and I haven’t got really good picture.

For Trevor, what are your thoughts on the bear jams and the safety of Grizzly 399?

(Trevor Bloom) I think the Grand Teton National Park does a really great job managing the bear jams. And over a decade of being, working as a wildlife guide up there as well, I’ve never really seen too terrible of interactions happening at the bear jam, but really you almost feel bad for the bears. Sometimes they’re trying to cross the road and there’s a line of a hundred people and they can’t cross the road or they get startled. But it’s actually been pretty surprising and amazing that you’ve never seen like a negative, like a mauling or anything like that happening at these bear jams. And it could be a matter of time, but for the most part, it’s also really amazing to just see that many people caring about wildlife tourism and coming to an area like Grand Teton National Park to see these bears in their natural habitat. There are very few places in the world you can do that.

Does Grizzly 399 always hibernate in the same place?

(Tom Mangelsen) I learned about 16 years ago when she had been collared with a radio collar. And from a friend of mine, Chris Flaherty, who was a North district ranger in Teton Park, and he was particularly fond of 399 from the get-go. He told me where she hibernated ’cause they tracked her with the radio collar. And then she would always pretty much go uphill from the creek and go into that wilderness area. And a few years later, she traveled about 40 or 50 miles in one or two days in late December, deep snow with three two-year-old cubs. And I was curious just where she might go. So I hired a pilot, a fixed-wing pilot from the airport here and just followed the tracks into an area in the wilderness where they disappeared into the forest. And that’s where I figured she, where her den was.

And I went back a couple of years later and pretty high elevation, of course. And she was sitting on a south-facing slope where the snow had melted and she was nursing three cubs. So that was pretty cool. And she’s been, I think, using that den most often. But they do, you know, they do den usually in the same area but maybe not the same den. But this one had a, it was a big hole under a huge Douglas fir tree. So it was an earthen den and probably about like the Four Seasons compared to some dens that bears make.

Does she interact with her other offspring, her other cubs that have matured?

(Tom Mangelsen) Yes, a number of times we’ve seen them at some close distance, maybe 100 or 200 yards. And each of them will stand up to figure out if that’s somebody we know or if that’s dangerous or whatever. And what they sort of circle. And I realized that they circle around to catch the wind and catch the scent. They can’t really, bears see just fine, pretty much just like us, it’s kind of a misinterpretation that they can’t see very well, but they can see fine. But their smell is obviously much better. And so they get downwind of their family member and then they’ll get together, usually kind of casual. And if it’s over a carcass, they’ll share, like there was a bison carcass a number of years ago that they shared, but they took turns. But it’s sort of like a little bit of a scramble. They didn’t all eight or seven or whatever it was at the time eat together, but they would take turns. So that was really cool to see. They definitely recognize each other once they get the scent.

(Trevor Bloom) And to build on Tom’s comment too, there’s another grizzly bear in the area, grizzly bear 610, which is one of 399 offspring that often has cubs. And it’s pretty common to see them both on the same day, not far away from each other. And there are special moments when you actually see the families come together.

What’s the lifespan of a grizzly?

(Trevor Bloom) In the wild, it seems like there’s 20 to 25 years is pretty old for a bear. Bears in captivity can live well over 30, 35 years. But grizzly bear 399 being 28 this year and continuing to raise a cub that makes her the oldest known female with cubs that’s been recorded, at least in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Tom, you can correct me if I’m wrong.

What surprised you about making the film?

(Elizabeth Leiter) I learned so much from Tom and from Trevor and from so many other people that contributed to the film, both on-screen and through research and behind the scenes. I was really in the beginning kind of excited and interested in this idea that 399 was a celebrity bear. And what does it mean for a wild animal to be a celebrity and to be known and to have such a big sort of online presence?

And as I kind of kept digging deeper into her story and her life and talking to lots of different folks in Jackson and people who know this kind of ecosystem well, I became really, really surprised by how much, I knew that I would learn about grizzlies, but I had no clue how much she sort of serves as a mirror to humans about our own perspectives and what we believe to be sort of, our desired relationship with nature or the way that we interact with nature or with each other. So I think that she really is sort of like a prism for us to not only learn about her species but a lot about what’s happening internally for us.

How many of 399’s offspring are still alive and well?

(Tom Mangelsen) Well, I think most people it’s really hard to know because they distribute pretty far and wide, especially the males. And I think most people’s guess is about half, maybe less than half have survived. And most of those have been due to human activity of one kind or another, getting run over by a car, getting shot, getting poached, getting maybe a cow or something and getting euthanized. But I think so. What do you think Trevor?

(Trevor Bloom) Yeah, I think half’s probably generous, but I think that’s pretty good. I think they also say that she has the most offspring that we know of, and then now grandchildren of any bear in the GYE, but it’s hard to put a hard number on it. And not every bear is tracked throughout its life the way that she is.

(Tom Mangelsen) I think that the general consensus is she’s probably had somewhere between 28 and 36 offspring. And that’s a lot of bears, but if you think it’s been less than 50% that survived in over the last 18 years or so.

Still interested in learning more? Watch the full panel here.

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