The Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone
An Intimate Portrait of 399
I need to warn: In the new non-fiction book by Bozeman writer Todd Wilkinson, grizzly bears and people die tragically at the hands of each other.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” is a real-life thriller and until the final page, we readers don’t know who the next casualty will be. But we hope it won’t be 399, who brings added meaning to the role of ursine motherhood.
The irony is that Wilkinson cleverly uses our own fascination with grizzlies—the largest, most fearsome and charismatic predators in the Lower 48—to draw us in. He succeeds, and once we are there, he takes us on a fascinating adventure about co-existence between humans and bruins in our own wild backyard.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is a gripping account, but it’s made breathtaking by the pictures of famed Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Over the last decade, Mangelsen has amassed a quarter-million frames of bear 399 and her clan. The 150 selected for the book remind us why he is considered one of the most heralded nature photographers in the world.
On Friday, Nov 13 at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman, Wilkinson and Mangelsen will formally unveil their book at a special presentation featuring Mangelsen’s dazzling photographs. The public is invited.
This book is incredibly timely. The US Fish and Wildlife Service to soon announce plans to remove Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and hand over management to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The story of 399 gives us a lens for thinking about delisting.
Explains Wilkinson; “399 inhabits Greater Yellowstone’s ‘human-wild’ interface and she is representative of the very kind of grizzly that will need to persist if the population is going to survive.” He goes on to say; “I’ve been writing about grizzly bears for nearly 30 years and I’ve been searching for a way to make the issues of grizzly conservation exciting and accessible. You can’t do that writing generically about anonymous grizzlies elusively roaming the backcountry. The story of an individual bear family brings the issues to life, sometimes dramatically.”
Millions of people from around the world have come to try and catch sight of bear 399 in Grand Teton National Park around Jackson Lake. Many have watched the mama bruin and her bands of cubs stalk elk calves in a place called “Willow Flats” right in front of onlookers at Jackson Lake Lodge and the scene is as dramatic as any predator and prey episode on the Serengeti.
Because she and members of her extended family have been so visually accessible, in a setting backdropped by the Tetons, they’ve attracted crowds, but as Wilkinson points out, they are not any less wild, nor are they anything like the famous begging bears of Yellowstone known to generations at late as the 1960s.
In all, 15 different bears are descended from 399, who turned 19 years old in 2015 and, knock on wood, she is expected next spring to emerge from her Pilgrim Creek den with cubs. Sobering, however, is that of those 15 blood relatives, more than half have already died, most from human causes such as being illegally shot by a deer hunter, killed for eating livestock, relocated and then euthanized for inhabiting the suburbs, struck and killed by a car.
As Wilkinson notes, the recovery of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone rates as one of the most laudatory wildlife conservation achievements in history and a long list of people— federal and state agencies, communities, professional conservation advocates, citizens —are owed credit.
However, huge challenges loom ahead, including climate change, declines in major bear foods, and Greater Yellowstone being inundated by record numbers of people pinching in on grizzly habitat.
Should Greater Yellowstone grizzlies be delisted? Wilkinsen shares the opinion of people on both sides, though he let’s the reader decide. But if you think delisting is controversial, it’s nothing compared to what could come next: a recommencement of trophy sport hunting of grizzlies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The way Wilkinson weaves his narrative, showing how 399 already roams a land mine of elk hunters and gut piles in Wyoming will leave you at the edge of your chair.
Here, I will make an admission: I have known Todd for a couple of decades and have admired his skilled and unflinching reporting on regional conservation issues. His most recent book on the conservation legacy of Ted Turner gained him a national audience. But his true love is the Greater Yellowstone region – the cradle of the national park idea and innumerable pioneering wildlife conservation efforts. And he makes no bones about it, he loves grizzly bears. He and I had our own recent grizzly encounter. Earlier this autumn while grouse hunting in the Gallatin Range, we came upon a grizzly perched on a ridge eating chokecherries and watching us. Around the bear cattle were calmly grazing away. We didn’t panic, and Todd, fresh off of writing a story about bear spray for National Geographic online, drew his spray in the event the griz moved closer. It didn’t, and all ended well. While we didn’t bag any grouse, we were ecstatic by seeing the Great Bear in our wild backyard. It made that part of the Gallatins feel like the wild place that it is, not just the playground for Bozeman.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is not only a celebration of an extraordinary bear family. It is a timely book about grizzly recovery whose success going forward rests in our hands. If we want an ecosystem with grizzlies, we have to give them space.
Remember to attend “An Evening with the Most Famous Bear In The World: Grizzly Mama 399—Can She Survive” in Bozeman on Friday, November 13 in the Emerson Cultural Center’s Crawford Theater. The showing is being sponsored by the Bozeman office of the Sierra Club. For more information, contact Bonnie Rice: firstname.lastname@example.org
One final note: Because Wilkinson and Mangelsen want to support local independent booksellers, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is only available there. You can also order autographed copies by Todd and Tom by going directly to: www.mangelsen.com/grizzly while there, check out Mangelsen’s photography.
Long time conservationist Dennis Glick is the Director of the non-profit organization Future West and has written extensively on environmental issues in the Northern Rockies.