By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Jackson Hole grizzly 399 emerged from her den the week of May 9, walking out from her winter sanctum in the Pilgrim Creek drainage with a single, healthy cub of the year at her side.
At 20 years old, 399 is the most famous living wild bear on earth. Think about that. She is universally beloved, a marvel to millions around the world who know of her existence.
399 and other bears make wildlife conservation meaningful for large numbers of people who otherwise have little connection with nature. She is the poster child of grizzly conservation in the Greater Yellowstone region. The most passionate 399 admirers are children who, for the rest of their lives, will never forget seeing her.
This is rare. It is powerful. Why is it so difficult for politicians in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to comprehend? Why do public officials keep trying to claim that individual animals don’t matter?
Even hunters create legendary stories around individual elk, moose and deer. The difference is that they often want to covet those animals as personal trophies. A bear like 399, while alive, can be enjoyed by huge numbers of people over and over again.
In most states, 399 would be celebrated, embraced, treated as a national treasure by elected officials, even adopted as a wild mascot. Bizarrely, not in Wyoming. Gov. Matt Mead and his administration mostly portray native Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears as liabilities imposed upon the state by the federal government.
It’s an attitude of small-mindedness reflected in the shocking behavior of some Wyoming citizens. On Dec. 28, 2015, Bill Addeo, a resident of Hoback Junction, brazenly typed a message on the Jackson Hole News & Guide website in response to a column I had written titled, “If Jesus were here, he’d defend wildlife.”
Addeo wrote: “I KILLED BEAR 399. So, if Wilkinson is doing a book on bear 399, he needs to talk to me about the bear’s last moments gasping for air as the cubs ran about. I was there taking pictures and have all the inside information.”
Most people find Addeo’s humor disturbing, though some worried he wasn’t joking. Fortunately, 399 was not poached.
Why do Americans, by a huge margin, distrust Wyoming’s ability to keep the recovery of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies going?
And who is Addeo? He’s the attention-grubbing guy who proudly shot a wolf in Wyoming’s “predator zone,” where, in 85 percent of the state, wolves could be killed any time of day by any means for any reason.
Inexplicably, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved Wyoming’s predator zone for lobos, the first time in the history of the federal Endangered Species Act the agency allowed a recovered iconic wildlife species to be treated so callously. It set a terrible precedent.
Addeo shot the wolf after it ate an antelope. He strapped the bloodied carcass to the top of his SUV, drove it into Jackson and parked his vehicle along the downtown square, the social center of the community.
His friend, the late Sam Coutts, told the Jackson Hole News & Guide to send a photographer to chronicle the spectacle. Essentially, Addeo raised a middle finger into the face of those who value wolves and grizzlies alive.
He claimed he would’ve killed the wolf’s four packmates too if only he could’ve gotten them in his gunsight. A few years earlier, Addeo’s good friend, a former Special Forces soldier and Wyoming big game outfitter, was convicted of poaching a bald eagle, the protected avian symbol of this country, after one of the wild raptors ate trout in his private fishpond.
After this column first appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, I received threatening emails from people who seemed to argue that poaching public wildlife and threatening to poach public wildlife, using the mantra of shoot, shovel and shut-up, is somehow justified. Is it?
Are these folk representative of most hunters? No, of course not, but their outlaw behavior toward bears and wolves flourishes in Wyoming and it echoes in Montana and Idaho. A few weeks ago, it was announced that famed Yellowstone transboundary bear “Scarface” was shot in Montana outside the national park under suspicious circumstances.
Montana also recently proposed upping the lobo quota, allowing hunters to kill more transboundary Yellowstone wolves—wolves that delight huge crowds of wildlife watchers in Lamar Valley yet can be shot simply for wandering across an invisible park border.
Daryl Hunter, a wildlife photographer in Greater Yellowstone, wrote recently: “I met a guy who wants grizzly 399’s rug on his wall, stating that because she is famous, she makes a better trophy.”
There’s also the Wyomingites who want to kill 399 for other reasons, some out of spite, because they hate the federal government and environmentalists for wanting to keep grizzlies like 399 protected.
Should American citizens, who have made a huge investment resuscitating the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population, be concerned? There is no compelling evidence—none I’ve seen—that sport hunting grizzlies will build social tolerance.
Irrational cultural hostility toward grizzlies thrives in Wyoming, a state where public officials want to suppress recovery, even preventing bears from inhabiting remote federal public lands in Greater Yellowstone because priority is given to non-native, taxpayer-subsidized private cattle.
Governors in most states would proudly tell the world their province is special because it has bears like 399 inside its borders, recognizing them as rare and powerful assets. Why Wyoming Gov. Mead can’t do that reveals a lot about who he is.
New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of the critically acclaimed “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly. Mangelsen is featured in the current, award-winning issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine still on newsstands.