Portrait of a Legend

October 26, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

You might be one of the millions of people across the globe who feel great affection for Grizzly 399, the Queen of Grand Teton National Park. Maybe you've been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her in person.

Conversely, perhaps you've never heard of 399. 

No matter which camp you're in, I've got a book recommendation for you - especially if you appreciate wildlife photography.

World-renowned photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen's Grizzly 399: The World's Most Famous Mother Bear is a moving tribute to this magnificent animal. Award-winning conservation writer Todd Wilkinson contributed the text. (Large-format hardcover, 240 pages)

Treat yourself. It's wonderful.

399 is unusual in many ways: her remarkably long lifespan, her fame, the 18 cubs she has mothered. She is tolerant towards people. She is highly intelligent, having figured out how to navigate an often-dangerous environment.

When she first emerged from her mother's den in the high reaches of Pilgrim Creek 27 years ago, how could anyone know this cub would eventually become an ambassador for her species and change the way many think about grizzlies? 

Tom Mangelsen lives in Jackson Hole; he first laid eyes on 399 in 2006 and has been documenting her life with his camera ever since. His work is stunning. Wilkinson's text is equal parts informative, gripping, sad, and inspiring. You can't look at these photographs and read about 399's life and not be moved.

For all her celebrity, though, 399 has not lived a charmed life. As Mangelsen notes in his foreword:

It's exceedingly dangerous being a grizzly in the modern American West, even in an unparalleled region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is known for being a bastion of wildlife in the Lower 48 states. Indeed, grizzlies can exist almost like gossamers. They don't seek confrontation or attention from people; they would prefer not dwelling in our towns, suburbs, and exurbs. Yet every week these areas are claiming more of the secure habitat bears need to survive.    

In 1975, the number of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had dwindled to 136 - perhaps less - as a result of hunting (ostensibly to protect cattle grazing on public land, though Fish and Game data indicates that very few cattle deaths are attributable to the bears, even now). It was then that they were first listed as a threatened species.

Grizzlies were completely absent from Grand Teton National Park until the late 1990s. Repopulation is a slow process; it has taken many years. The fact that some grizzlies once again call the park home is an amazing conservation success story.

One would think Wyoming, Montana and Idaho would celebrate the fact that the bears have been brought back from the brink, if for no other reason than the fact that they drive so much tourism revenue  - but legislators in all three states have other ideas and have been actively fighting to delist grizzlies for many years. They're getting much more aggressive in their efforts. 

These magnificent creatures already face a difficult existence. One can only imagine what will happen if they are removed from protected status. 

As Todd Wilkinson writes, we humans hold the fate of grizzlies in our hands. 

Follow the link to take a look inside the book:

Grizzly 399: The World's Most Famous Mother Bear


Odds and Ends

After a wonderfully mild October in this neck of the woods, Old Man Winter is making an appearance with both snow and cold temperatures. Will he stick around and settle in or is this simply a preview of coming events? Who knows. Either way this cold snap will be the end of the line for my annuals.

Much of Yellowstone was closed yesterday due to treacherous road conditions; it's snowing today, this time at lower elevations, too (like my lawn). I expect more travel alerts from YNP. 

The mountains, both national parks, and parts of Eastern Idaho remain under a winter storm warning. Then on Saturday the mercury is going to sink down to a brisk 2 degrees overnight in Jackson. Bundle up!

Speaking of Yellowstone, weather permitting, the last day of regular vehicle access is this coming Tuesday, October 31. After that, all entrances except the north (Gardiner) will close so the park service can prepare for winter traffic. The park re-opens on December 15th to motorized oversnow travel.


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