By the end of the year, the federal government will likely propose taking the grizzly bear off the endangered species list. To some, this would mark an unprecedented victory: the resuscitation of perhaps the most iconic large mammal on the continent. In 1975, when it first gained endangered species protection, the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the few areas grizzly bears still exist in the continental United States, dwindled to 130. Today, the population stands at around 750. But despite this resurgence, many scientists, conservationists, and indigenous people say taking away its protection could spell disaster for the species.
This latter camp includes award-winning wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, who has lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on the edge of Great Teton National Park, since the 1970s. He has captured the return of the grizzlies to Greater Yellowstone with his lens for nearly a decade, since his most famous subject, the mother grizzly bear known as 399, first appeared in Teton Park. The bear quickly became a wildlife star, raising several sets of cubs in close proximity to popular tourist spots within Grand Teton National Park while almost never threatening humans.
Using 399 and her offspring as an entry point, Mangelsen and his longtime friend and journalist Todd Wilkinson explore the controversy surrounding grizzly bears and how humans should treat them in a gorgeous coffee table book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, that comprises Mangelsen’s photos of 399 and her family (some of which are included here), along with a narrative by Wilkinson.
Mengelsen and Wilkinson recently sat down with Mother Jones to talk about their experiences with 399, the threats she and other grizzlies face, and why we should care about what could happen if the US Fish and Wildlife Service takes away their Endangered Species Act protection.
Mother Jones: Tom, tell me about what it was like when 399 showed up in Grand Teton National Park near to where you live.
Thomas D. Mangelsen: : [399’s arrival] was big news in 2006 because up until then grizzly bears hadn’t been seen in Teton Park. I had been there 27 years when she showed up, and I had never seen a grizzly bear in Teton Park, and I had seen very few grizzlies in Yellowstone.
I live on the edge of Teton Park, next to the Snake River, and in 2005 I awoke in the middle of the night because my dog was going crazy. I bolted up, adrenaline rushing, and I look up and I see this bear standing face to face through the glass, looking at Loup [his dog]. I looked and I saw this big hump on his back or her back, and I said hmm, that’s not a black bear, that’s a grizzly bear. But because I had never seen one there [this was before 399 showed up], I still thought it had to be a black bear.
The following year, in 2006, I started hearing stories that a mother with three cubs had been seen a couple of times in Teton Park in Oxbow Bend, which is a famous overlook, and a great place in Teton Park for wildlife. I went up there later in the summer and I saw her and her three cubs feeding on a moose carcass. I didn’t think too much about it—I thought, “They will be gone soon because it’s turning into fall.”
She grew on me. I watched her a little later in the season chase elk calves in early June in the Willow Flats, which is near Oxbow Bend. She started drawing these crowds of people because she would come there every afternoon and she would play rope a dope with these herds of elk and their calves. She would be out there playing and nursing the calves, not paying attention to the elk, it looked like. Then these elk would come up closer to her to keep an eye on the predator, and all of a sudden she would bolt and run and chase them and split the herd. The elk would run into the willows and then 399 would just turn around and go back like a herd dog and pick off these elk calves.
I was excited because I knew immediately that it was a great opportunity for people to learn about bears and see them in a natural state. I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa over the years, and it was very similar to the Serengeti, seeing a lion or a cheetah chasing wildebeest.
MJ: Grizzlies have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since the ’70s, but many are still shot every year. Why?
Todd Wilkinson: There is an elk hunt that’s been in Great Teton National Park, the only sanctioned big game hunt of its kind in the lower 48 in a national park, and that perennially puts bears at risk because elk are getting killed in the park, the grizzlies are feeding on the remains—the gut piles—and then hunters are bumbling into them. So every season that goes by with 399 and her 15 descendants, it’s a miracle in some ways that they remain alive, because she and her offspring are walking through these land mines.
TDM: In the national parks, you can’t leave a coke can on a picnic table—you would get a ticket—but you can leave these gut piles, and you cut the legs, limbs, heads off and leave them in the field.
MJ: Why would it be a bad idea to take away grizzly bears’ Endangered Species Act protection?
TW: The federal government is saying that bears have surpassed their carrying capacity and basically the ecosystem is bursting at the seams in terms of bear numbers, so they are pushing out.
In the book, we talk about a scientist named David Mattson who is a veteran of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the premier large mammal research unit in the world. He has advanced a counter narrative, which is that, as a result of declines in their four main food groups, grizzly bears are having to range wider to find their food.
One of those key foods is whitebark pine seeds. Within the last decade, the 18 million-acre whitebark pine forest ecosystem has collapsed—it’s functionally extinct as a reliable food source. Climate change has exacerbated insect infestation so we’re now getting two beetle reproductive cycles in the course of a single year, when in the past we might get one.
The second thing that’s happened is 25 or 30 years ago, someone introduced lake trout into Yellowstone Lake, and that has beaten back native cutthroat trout that spawn in the streams that come out of Yellowstone Lake. The bears seize upon the fish—it’s a great source of protein. Because cutthroat has been decimated, that has impacted a huge number of bears, 60 to 80 bears.
And then on top of that, there is a third food source called the army cutworm moth [also known as the miller moth]. They are treated as an agricultural pest, and so you have lots of pesticides thrown at the moths in farm country. Those moths migrate hundreds of miles to the high mountain talus slopes to drink the nectar of high mountain flowers. We know from climate change that those high alpine and subalpine areas are in danger, so if the flowers go away, what’s going to happen to the moths? Or if the moths get hammered by pesticides, they disappear. They are high fat sources; grizzlies eat tens of thousands of them in a sitting.
As a result of bears losing those key foods and having to forage farther, not only are females being forced to feed on carcasses, but they are also having negative encounters with cattle in the area—we have seen a spike in the number of encounters with livestock.
The one thing we know about climate change is that it is making the wild apron of ecosystems shrink. You have climate change that is asserting its impact on Greater Yellowstone at the same time you have record visitation to the national parks and a record inundation of lifestyle pilgrims moving to the ecosystem, pressing in on the outside edges. So you got this constricting ecosystem, and on top of it you have climate change. The future of grizzly bears is really uncertain.
TDM: People in the scientific community, private citizens, and conservationists are saying, “What’s the rush [to take away Endangered Species Act protection from the grizzly bears]? Let’s see how this plays out.”
MJ: What’s in store for 399 while we wait to see if grizzly bears’ protection is taken away?
TW: 399 is 19 years old. She’s been seen with male bears this summer, and so very likely when she comes out of the den in late winter next year, she’ll have a new set of cubs as a 20-year-old mother.