Global response reminds us why bears matter

CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

“Snowy” the grizzly wasn’t nearly as well-known as his mother. But when he emerged at her side in May, trailing down the mountainous slopes of Pilgrim Creek, the photogenic cub caused a stir that rippled internationally on social media.

Part of the reason was his lineage, being the ursid son of 399, the most famous bear in the world; their home territory, the wild backyard of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; to be more specific, the northern tier of Jackson Hole from the Tetons eastward to the Gros Ventre and southern Absaroka.

399 was scheduled to turn 20 years old in her den last winter—an ancient age for a mama grizzly to achieve in a dangerous world—though speculation was rampant she might have been poached.

One Wyoming agitator, who despises federal protection of wildlife, despises environmentalists, and, apparently, resents the public love of 399, claimed on the Jackson Hole News and Guide website that he gleefully killed her.

When the boasting threat proved not to be true and 399 showed up in her usual haunt this spring—a sweep of public land that includes Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest—her anxious adoring fans were ecstatic.

Even better, 399 had a newborn at her side. The youngster was given the nickname “Snowy” by amateur wildlife photographer and retiree Bernie Scates, owed to the whitish-blond flush of fur marking his face.

As crowds gathered to look for 399 and Snowy near the Grand Teton roadsides—the mama griz, per her behavior, has demonstrated remarkable tolerance for people—cute photographs of the pair abounded only solidifying 399’s living legend.

It’s always perilous for humans to anthropomorphize, to project our own emotions onto animals, to believe we “know” what another creature is “thinking.” However, it isn’t conjecture to recognize playfulness in other beings, or tender protectiveness, warm nurturing, and perhaps even joy expressed through the body language of parent and offspring.

Prominent ethologists like Dr. Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall cite numerous studies showing that animals have their own inner architecture of emotions; in other words, they “feel” things, such as loss, and have a sentient awareness.

Our inability to understand that which we cannot consciously know—yet— does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Some federal and state wildlife managers try to dismiss and diminish the value of individual animals, claiming that they are only concerned about species at the population level. They even make fun of people who develop a deeper connection to individual animals the more they observe them.

(Funny isn’t it, how humans are able to ascribe intelligence to pet dogs, cats, even livestock like horses and cows, but they deny that such acuity is innate with wildlife.)

However, as 399 has demonstrated, most people don’t relate abstractly to animals at the population level, as nameless, faceless critters inhabiting the backcountry.

Individual animals like 399 and her clan provide a window into how species survive at the population level, how it is the accumulation of smart, savvy and fertile individuals that add up to populations which possess greater resiliency in being able to withstand impacts threatening their persistence.

Indeed, 399 has been exceptional. With Snowy, she’s been responsible for 16 descendants (cubs and cubs born to cubs). Grizzlies, in fact, are some of the slowest reproducing large mammals on the planet.

Keep enough reproducing females like 399 alive in the population, and ensure that her daughters, which learn the skills of their mother, are given room to roam, and you’ll have stable numbers. Yet allow a dozen prime female grizzlies of reproductive age to be killed and a population trajectory can turn south.

Of those 16 bruins in 399’s bloodline, half have already perished, the vast majority in deadly encounters with humans, be it from illegal killing, being hit by vehicles, destroyed for coming into conflict with cattle on public land or removed and euthanized by wildlife managers.

On Sunday, June 19, the evening prior to the first full day of summer, 399 and Snowy were crossing the main Grand Teton highway just before dusk. A motorist ran into the cub, left him sprawled on the asphalt and then drove off, not alerting authorities or stopping to investigate.

It was a hit and run, according to the letter of federal code. As Snowy lay dead or dying, 399 went to the cub’s aid to investigate and when the little bear didn’t move, his mother dragged him off the roadway, remaining with his body.

Rangers arrived on the scene and were only able to recover Snowy’s carcass after 399 fled. Wildlife watchers noticed that 399 seemed anxious and confused. Meanwhile, no person came forward to claim responsibility.

Within 24 hours, word of Snowy’s death had encircled the globe. Only cynical folk would characterize 399 and Snowy as just another set of bears. I was interviewed by the BBC and wrote a story for National Geographic online.

People ask me, knowing that Tom Mangelsen and I have produced a book about 399 called “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” if I feel responsible for enlarging the human spectacle that gathers in Grand Teton with thousands of people hoping to see the bears?

My response is this: In an age of pandemic nature-deficit disorder, when urban people feel disconnected from nature, when they are left anesthetized by electronic gadgetry and yet have a yearning for authentic sensual experiences in America’s outback, with real, wild, rare, charismatic animals like grizzlies, I’m thrilled that more people are enjoying 399’s story.

399 and all of the federally protected grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone belong to all of us. They are the beneficiaries of our willingness to give them space on landscapes becoming increasingly cluttered with development. They are examples of how and why the Endangered Species Act is important.

Just seeing people out there peering at bears and counting it among the most memorable experiences of their lives is inspiring. 399 is part of a legacy different generations can share together. That she’s visually accessible isn’t a bad thing; it’s an extraordinary thing.

Yes, it’s still possible, albeit a longshot, that 399, if she successfully navigates a gauntlet of elk hunters in Wyoming this fall, could emerge from the den again in 2017 with cubs. The oldest known grizzly mama to have cubs in Greater Yellowstone was 27.

But Snowy very well could be her last. Many believe that what they witnessed in her along the roadside was the grief of a mother mourning the loss of her infant.

Why are people so rapt? What 399 represents is the opposite of apathy. She may not be long for the world but every day that she helps people rediscover their desire to embrace wildness is a miracle.

Todd Wilkinson writes his New West column every week. He is author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen. The book is only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly and when you order today you will receive a copy autographed by both author and photographer. Wilkinson also wrote a profile of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk for the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.