It was 2006 and photographer Tom Mangelsen had lived in Jackson for several decades. He’d traveled to Alaska where he’d photographed grizzlies and published a book of images he’d captured of polar bears. He’d glimpsed a few bears in Yellowstone National Park, but he’d never seen a grizzly in Grand Teton National Park. Then he spotted it near Oxbow Bend: A female grizzly feasting on a moose carcass with three cubs.
Mangelsen thought the 20 minutes he observed the bear family would be it. But the next spring the bear emerged with its yearling cubs and the family spent its days near the highway running through the park, capturing Mangelsen’s attention, along with that of throngs of roadside fans. The bear, known as No. 399 — its research number — became the park’s most famous bear. Mangelsen spent thousands of hours photographing No. 399 and several generations of her offspring — he estimates he took more than 250,000 shots.
Mangelsen shares about 150 of those images in a new book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone.
“This is a special bear that has a special story that needs to be told,” Mangelsen said. “She has the remarkable ability to show us what bears are about. It’s not an easy life.”
The book is unprecedented, said Todd Wilkinson, the author. Wilkinson, a journalist who has covered grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone for more than 30 years, uses No. 399’s story to paint a picture of the entire species, the challenges they face and how humans attempt to manage the animals.
“399 is a window into the broader natural history of all grizzly bears,” Wilkinson said. “Tom’s photos brings these bears to life, while my words give context.”
While Mangelsen has been vocal opposing removing grizzlies from the endangered species list and criticizing Grand Teton National Park’s annual elk hunt, Wilkinson wanted the book to be a piece of journalism that sparked conversations about bear management. He wanted to make complicated policy issues tangible without anthropomorphizing the animals.
“(Bear No. 399) became this entree into much larger landscape issues,” he said.
He wanted a book that would touch all the issues tied to grizzly bear management, from human conflicts to research. Wilkinson interviewed wildlife managers and scientists, such as Frank Van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, and Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I didn’t want this book to be preachy and didactic,” Wilkinson said. “I wanted it to raise questions about delisting. I wanted to open people’s eyes to the perils bears face in the elk reduction program, but let them draw their own conclusions. It’s not meant to be anti-hunting or anti-delisting.”
The first story Wilkinson wrote about grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone published in the Bozeman Chronicle in Montana in the early 1980s. The story detailed Wilkinson seeing a bear while working in Yellowstone National Park — a grizzly sighting back then was rare.
As the ecosystem’s grizzly bear population increased, sightings are no longer so noteworthy. But no bear has been so consistently visible as 399. Few bears also have given so much to research and insight into what life is like for grizzlies in the ecosystem, Wilkinson said.
“She’s representative of the promise of grizzly bear conservation and the challenges as we move forward,” he said.
Bear No. 399 received its name in 2001 when scientists first captured and collared it. Researchers believe 399 started frequenting roadside areas in Grand Teton in 2006 because it felt safer in the front country after a cub born in 2004 died in the backcountry, Wilkinson said.
The bear wasn’t interested in people. It would walk across the highway after looking both ways, Mangelsen said.
“She seemed so cool and savvy about traffic,” he said.
One summer day Mangelsen watched the bear play with its cubs while calculating a hunting strategy for the hundreds of elk nearby. She would bolt, the cubs toddling behind it, splitting the herd into small groups, chasing the elk at full speed into the willows where Mangelsen could no longer see the action, but heard calves squeal.
People started showing up in areas the bear was recently seen, parking themselves in lawn chairs as though waiting for a performance.
But it wasn’t until 2011 that the bear took on true celebrity status, Mangelsen said. That spring it emerged from the den with triplets. Its daughter, No. 610, came out with twins and later that summer adopted one of 399’s cubs. The cub swap became international news.
“(Bear No. 399) became an immediate rock star after that,” Mangelsen said.
People came from all over the world to see the bear and its family, but its status wasn’t enough to save its offspring. Of its 15 cubs, almost half have died, many killed due to human or livestock conflicts, Wilkinson said.
“The miracle of her survival also speaks to the miracle of grizzly bear survival in general,” he said.
The bear’s story encompasses so many management issues, and the book comes at a time when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering taking Yellowstone grizzlies off the endangered species list. The eventual delisting of the bears will lead to other issues, such as management across different agency boundaries, the minimum population needed to sustain in the ecosystem, and how to manage trophy hunts.
“I really wanted this book to be a point of reflection,” Wilkinson said. “This really provides the context for thinking about these very complicated issues.”
It will be 20 years old when — and if — 399 emerges from its den next spring. There is always a possibility something could happen and the bear won’t appear. But scientists and the bear’s fans hope it will return — ideally with cubs in tow. Either way the story of grizzly bear conservation isn’t over.