Make no mistake: This wild mama griz doesn’t bear any resemblance to Sarah Palin, nor to any of the cartoon characters inhabiting fictional Jellystone Park.
Her name is “Grizzly 399” and she happens to be the most famous mother bruin on Earth. She’s 19 years old, weighs 400 pounds and, not long from now, she’ll be slumbering for five months of winter hibernation in the remote mountains of northwest Wyoming. If she survives, the odds are good she’ll emerge from her underground lair next spring with a fresh batch of cubs in tow.
Millions of rapt human admirers will be waiting — and praying — that she perseveres.
In telling her story, a true tale that involves the lives and deaths of both bruins and people in America’s most iconic ecosystem, Tom Mangelsen and I wanted to bring readers up close and personal to our subject. But trust us, we had no desire to end up in the belly of the beast.
Mangelsen, the noted nature photographer counted among the best in the world, has been visually tracking 399 and her various broods of cubs for a decade. They navigate a perilous wildland-human interface in Jackson Hole’s Grand Teton National Park.
Our book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” is intended to offer a dramatic glimpse — not only into the journeys of this remarkable bear family but, more importantly, we want people to appreciate 399 as an enormously intelligent sentient creature trying to endure at a time when many large carnivore populations are in trouble.
Grizzly 399 lumbers along on a tightrope between safety and danger. Soon, her course may turn more treacherous. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said it intends to remove the Yellowstone region’s grizzly population from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and turn management over to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Bears were put on the imperiled list in 1975 and trophy hunting of grizzlies in the forests around Yellowstone National Park ended because they were being killed faster than they were reproducing. Returning grizzly management to the states means that, most likely, a trophy hunting season will recommence.
Even without sport hunting, it’s tough being a grizzly. This year, many bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem have died from various kinds of lethal run-ins with people. To reach her den, 399 must brave a gauntlet of elk hunters who annually kill many grizzlies, claiming self-defense. Of 399’s 15 offspring (cubs and offspring of cubs) descended from her over the years, half have died.
“Do I feel protective of 399?” Mangelsen asks. “Let me put it this way: I’ve never known anyone who’s ever laid their eyes on her and her offspring who didn’t want to defend them from possible harm.”
As an environmental journalist, I’ve been writing about grizzlies for nearly 30 years and remember well the dire concern of scientists in the early 1980s who worried that the Greater Yellowstone population might vanish in our lifetime. Their turnaround ranks among the most notable wildlife conservation success stories in human history. But given climate change and other threats, many are now wondering: Will it last?
More In Sight:
Part I: The life and slow death of a former Pennsylvania steel town