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Steamboat Magazine

Western Matriarch Grizzly 399

07/14/2017 12:24PM ● By Alesha Damerville

In 2018, several of Thomas D. Mangelsen’s bear and other large-format masterworks, including the venerable “Catch of the Day” and “First Light - Grizzly Bear,” will appear in a national touring exhibition titled “Thomas D. Mangelsen: A Life In The Wild.” Photo by Todd Mangelsen

By Todd Wilkinson

The last con rmed grizzly bear sighting in Colorado was 38 years ago. Unfortunately that bruin, an adult female that weighed upwards of 400 pounds, was mistakenly shot in the San Juan Mountains on Sept. 23, 1979. Today she’s only a relic specimen at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Historically, Colorado’s wild backcountry resided at the center of a vast grizzly bear range on the continent, contributing to a population south of Canada believed to have numbered 50,000. Yet in the wake of European colonization, predator control on behalf of livestock, and loss of habitat, viable numbers of Ursus arctos horribilis now exist in just two places in the Lower 48: The Crown of the Continent Ecosystem in northern Montana (think Glacier National Park) and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

This spring, bear lovers around the globe awaited word of whether the most famous bruin in the world, a mother known as Grizzly 399, survived the winter in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For years, 399’s story has played out as a thriller and again it looms as a bona- de cli anger. The wait ended on May 16, when 399 emerged from hibernation in the wild anks of Pilgrim Creek with new cubs at her side.

The 21-year-old mother is of ancient age for a grizzly, considering the challenges of being a large, fearsome mammalian predator in the 21st century. 

Even more remarkable is 399’s legacy. Matriarch of an extraordinary lineage, she has 18 descendants (cubs and cubs of cubs) in her bloodline. Truly breathtaking, she raised her clan (which has included three sets of triplets) along the roadside intersection of Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Because of her accessibility and meandering ways, she has attracted huge crowds of admirers. American families and international travelers plotted their vacations just to catch a glimpse of her.

“I’ve been photographing wildlife for more than 40 years – polar bears in the Arctic, lions in Africa, tigers in India – and I’ve never
seen anything like the mystique that surrounds 399,” says Thomas D. Mangelsen, who trailed her for more than a decade and published 150 dazzling images in his book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone.”

Forty years ago, grizzlies were absent from Jackson Hole, eliminated by wary livestock producers and hunters. But federal protection came through the Endangered Species Act, aimed at protecting habitat, reducing con ict and levying severe nes against poachers. As a result, Greater Yellowstone bears have rebounded from fewer than 200 in 1975 to three or four times as many today.

“399’s popularity speaks to a yearning humans have to feel connected to wild nature. The fact that her life and death saga has played out in the backyard of the West makes it more special because Americans can see the bene t of safeguarding rare animals,” Mangelsen says. “Besides her prominence as a mother giving her o spring the skills to navigate a complicated world, she is a poster child for the value of wildlife conservation.”

Mangelsen’s wildlife and landscape portraits are well known to residents of Steamboat Springs. The state has been a backdrop for much of his work. “I hope my pictures allow nature to live large in the lives of those who have them on the wall, to treasure nature’s creation, and inspire viewers to take a stand for protecting habitat essential to the persistence of animals that call the Rocky Mountain West home,” he says.

Mangelsen acknowledges that 399 holds a special place in his portfolio. “No landscape feels wilder than one with grizzlies inside of it,” he says. “But for the bears of Greater Yellowstone, I fear for their future.”

At present, claiming population targets have been reached, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it intends to remove the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population from federal protection and hand over management to the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

In Greater Yellowstone, it’s been 42 years since grizzlies were last hunted for sport. But if federal protections are lifted, states say they’ll bring back a trophy hunt, putting bears like 399 that spendpart of their lives in national parks and part outside their protective borders in peril.

Even with the Endangered Species Act, it isn’t easy being a grizzly. Of the 18 descendants of 399, about half have already died in run-ins with humans.

Overwhelmingly, Americans have voiced their opposition to removing safeguards for bears. Not long ago, Mangelsen’s close friend, Dr. Jane Goodall, the eminent conservationist, path-finding primatologist and fan of 399, appeared on video and said her “heart would break if trans boundary grizzlies like this famous mother were subjected to trophy hunting.”

Readers who can’t travel to Greater Yellowstone can still discover, up close, the visceral tingling that seeing one of these great bears elicits by standing in front of Mangelsen’s photographs. Every one was taken respectfully from a distance,” he says. “The two greatest things we can do, to ensure grizzlies are here for future generations to enjoy, is give them the space they need and allow them to inhabit our hearts.”

Will grizzlies ever again nd a home in Colorado? For Mangelsen, Goodall and others, there is always hope. “Grizzlies can be big and dangerous. That’s why we need
to respect them,” Mangelsen says. “But as far as being menacing beasts demonized in the mythology of the Old West, it’s just 
not true. When you are in grizzly country, you feel more alive.”

Todd Wilkinson has been writing about the West for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic and has penned several critically acclaimed books. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.