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The New West: Servheen, Hilty, Mangelsen headline online chat about grizzly bears in Northern Rockies

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Famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 and her four cubs swim across the Snake River near Jackson, Wyoming. PHOTO BY THOMAS D. MANGELSEN

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

If you’ve been reading the regional news and you care about the wondrous things of the natural world,  then you know famous Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399 and her four cubs are in trouble. 

They are strolling prior to hibernation this year in perilous straits—conditions even more treacherous than navigating a landscape full of elk hunters in the woods of northwest Wyoming leaving behind carcass piles that attract hungry bruins.

This grizzly fivesome has been wandering widely in Jackson Hole, moving through developed areas and neighborhoods, across busy highways—all in a search for food. That’s what grizzlies do in autumn when they are preparing themselves for several months of slumber. They need to take in as many calories as possible to fatten up for winter. Nutritional health makes all the difference.

But this year the 25-year-old matriarch and her family of yearlings has gotten into unnatural food. The same thing is happening with grizzly and black bears in Paradise Valley, outside Bozeman, on the outskirts of Big Sky and many other places.

Here’s the punchline: “If something bad happens to 399 and her cubs, it’s not going to be her fault. The blame will rest on humans who did something stupid.” 

That assessment comes from Dr. Christopher Servheen, who spent three-and-a-half decades overseeing grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from his office in Missoula. Servheen is today retired and serves as an executive with the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

399’s fate rests in our hands and it ought to serve as a wake-up call—yet another reminder that living in Greater Yellowstone comes replete with personal responsibility. The things we humans may have practiced elsewhere don’t work here. 

“What’s happening in Jackson Hole right now with 399 is a test that we knew was coming,” notes Tom Mangelsen, the noted nature photographer who has been chronicling 399 and several litters of cubs for 15 years. “People forget that grizzly conservation is a miracle and it only happened because we humans changed our behavior.”

On Monday, Nov. 8 from 6:30-8 p.m. MST, Servheen and Mangelsen will discuss grizzly 399, the story of bear conservation in the Northern Rockies and challenges facing bears now that Montana has passed controversial laws that Servheen believes will hobble ongoing bear recovery. 

Along with Servheen and Mangelsen, another esteemed panelist will be Dr. Jodi Hilty, president and senior scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative that has championed bioregional connection in the Northern Rockies.

The EBS Town Hall forum, in collaboration with Mountain Journal, will be free and made available via Zoom and on the EBS Facebook page. It will be a chance not only to hear from experts who have spent many, many years observing nature, but to also become informed.

Where for many years Servheen was a firm backer of states regaining management authority over grizzlies once they were removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, now he is reassessing his position.  He says that Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and the majority of politically appointed members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission don’t understand bear biology, the science of bear management or that fact that bears are not the menaces that members of the Montana Legislature portrayed them to be.

Perhaps the best example of all is Grizzly 399 who has successfully raised several litters of cubs in close proximity to people in Grand Teton National Park. She has demonstrated that grizzlies are not impetuous bloodthirsty beasts prowling for trouble with people. She has been tolerant of humans and taught her cubs how to navigate landscapes with intense human footprints.

Today in Montana, and if grizzlies are ever removed from federal protection, state laws would prohibit the ability of bear managers to relocate grizzlies outside the grizzly bear recovery zone—an area that Servheen says was established mostly to reflect where grizzlies were on the landscape in 1975. 

Bears were brought under federal protection because the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho showed they were incapable of maintaining healthy populations, emanating a mindset remarkably similar to the one being expressed by Gianforte and his political appointees, Servheen says. 

Along with Servheen, Mangelsen brings many decades of insights about wildlife conservation. It was only a few years ago that he was profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Joseph O’Connor, editor-in-chief of Explore Big Sky, and I welcome you to tune in Monday night. We know it will make for a fascinating conversation about the fate of an animal that defines the essence of wildness in the Northern Rockies.  

Tune in to the webinar Monday Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. MST to watch the discussion: https://bit.ly/3wkBf6C.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Mangelsen, about grizzly bear 399. 

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