Bear '399': Brigade Keeps Peace Between Tourist and Grizzly

The Angelina Jolie of grizzlies attracts attention at Grand Teton National Park.

ByABC News
August 26, 2011, 2:42 PM

Aug. 28, 2011, Moose, Wyo. — -- It's just past suppertime on a sublime summer evening in the Wild West, and traffic on this rural highway leading toward Willow Flats, an area in the central part of Grand Teton National Park, is at a standstill. Like paparazzi staking out a starlet, photographers line the roadside, clutching formidable camera lenses. Tourists pour from cars, some climbing onto roofs to gain a better vantage.

More magnetic even than the backdrop of the Tetons, the cause of this commotion is a mother grizzly bear and three cubs. Right before vacationers' eyes, she is teaching her offspring how to hunt elk calves.

"These aren't just any bears," explains Thomas Mangelsen, a local nature photographer in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "They might be the most famous grizzlies alive today on the planet. For all these people, catching a glimpse of them is the thrill of a lifetime."

If there's a hard lesson from this summer's vacation season, though, it's that humans and bears don't necessarily mix. Here to preserve some semblance of order amid the threat of pandemonium (on the human side, at least) is a special legion called the Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade.

Their mission: keep humans, bruins, and other animals from harm – often from one another. Never have the citizen "brigaders" played a more vital role than they have this summer, says Grand Teton ranger Kate Wilmot, now that Grand Teton National Park's roadside grizzlies have become global sensations.

"We've gone from a somewhat chaotic atmosphere the last couple of years to a completely chaotic one now," says Ms. Wilmot, noting that social media have helped to spread the bears' fame. "My official title is 'bear management specialist,' but the real challenge is managing the behavior of people."

The brigade was created in 2007 when a grizzly sow named "399" – a numeric reference bestowed upon her by researchers – showed up along the national park's roadsides with three yearling cubs. She and her brood promptly attracted an international following – including Facebook fans and travelers making trips here just to see her.