LOCAL TALES: Griz and Glory
As debates over bear management persist, the story of beloved Grizzly 399 is timelier than ever.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – If you live in Jackson Hole, her story is already legend to you now as she moves toward her winter den for the 20th year. Still, I need to warn you upfront: In the riveting non-fiction book by noted local photographer Tom Mangelsen and Bozeman writer Todd Wilkinson, grizzly bears and people die tragically at the hands of each other.
Not long ago when I first cracked its pages, I found Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone to be a real-life thriller, and until the final page in this era of the proposed grizzly delisting, 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 and make the issues surrounding grizzly conservation relevant. 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.
Grizzly 399 emerged from her den last May as a 20-year-old mother with a newborn cub at her side. That cub, “Snowie” was dead a month later after being killed in a hit-and-run encounter with a motorist who drove away. It only added to the international interest.
If you want to know more about that, you can read the piece that Wilkinson penned for National Geographic online, which also alludes to the troubling fact that people have threatened to kill 399 precisely because she is popular and would make a good trophy.
Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which won a High Plains Book Award, is a gripping account, but it is made truly breathtaking by the pictures of Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Mangelsen. Over the past 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 a heralded nature photographer.
Recent events make Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek a timely read. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year announced plans to remove Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and hand over management to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The story offers a lens for thinking about why Wyoming isn’t ready to handle the responsibility for an animal that currently belongs to all 330 million Americans. By hoping to open a sport hunt of bruins, the state basically wants to use bears as a fundraising tool.
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 helpers—federal and state agencies, communities, professional conservation advocates, citizens—are owed credit.
Huge challenges loom ahead, however, including known and unknown effects brought by 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? Wilkinson presents the opinions of people on both sides, and he lets the readers decide for themselves. But if you think delisting is controversial, it’s nothing compared to what could come with trophy hunting.
The way Wilkinson weaves his narrative, showing how 399 already roams a land mine of elk hunters and gut piles in Wyoming, including a controversial grandfathered hunt actually inside the boundary of Grand Teton National Park, will leave you at the edge of your chair.
Full disclosure: I have known Wilkinson 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 garnered 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 for a little color to this tale—he and I had our own recent grizzly encounter. Last 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 about 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. PJH
Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek is available at Images of Nature Gallery in Jackson; mangelsen.com/grizzly.
Dennis Glick is the director of Future West, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that helps communities create the future that they want. He has been involved in conservation and rural development issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for more than 25 years.