I need to warn you upfront: In a riveting new non-fiction book by Bozeman writer Todd Wilkinson, grizzly bears and people die tragically at the hands of each other.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” is a real-life thriller and until the final page, we readers don’t know who the next casualty will be. But we hope it won’t be 399, who brings added meaning to the role of ursine motherhood.
The irony is that Wilkinson cleverly uses our own fascination with grizzlies—the largest, most fearsome and charismatic predators in the Lower 48—to draw us in. He succeeds, and once we are there, he takes us on a fascinating adventure about co-existence between humans and bruins in our own wild backyard.
Grizzly 399 emerged from her den this week as a 20-year-old mother with a newborn cub at her side. If you want to know more about that, you can read the piece that Wilkinson penned for National Geographic online, which also eludes to the troubling fact that people have threatened to kill 399 precisely because she is popular and would make a good trophy.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is a gripping account, but it is made breathtaking by the pictures of Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Over the past decade, Mangelsen has amassed a quarter-million frames of bear 399 and her clan. The 150 selected for the book remind us why he is one of the most heralded nature photographers in the world.
Those who love bears and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are in for a treat. This Saturday, May 14, at MSU Billings (6:30 pm, Room 205 in the Liberal Arts Building), Wilkinson will share the story of 399 and share some of Mangelsen’s extraordinary photography. Also on hand to lay out of the science of grizzly bears is retired biologist David Mattson. The public is invited to this free event and books will also be available for purchase.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is incredibly timely. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year announced plans to remove Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and hand over management to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The story of 399 gives us a lens for thinking about delisting.
Wilkinson explains: “399 inhabits Greater Yellowstone’s ‘human-wild’ interface and she is representative of the very kind of grizzly that will need to persist if the population is going to survive.” He goes on to say, “I’ve been writing about grizzly bears for nearly 30 years and I’ve been searching for a way to make the issues of grizzly conservation exciting and accessible. You can’t do that writing generically about anonymous grizzlies elusively roaming the backcountry. The story of an individual bear family brings the issues to life, sometimes dramatically.”
Millions of people from around the world have come to try to catch sight of bear 399 in Grand Teton National Park around Jackson Lake. Many have watched the mama bruin and her bands of cubs stalk elk calves in a place called “Willow Flats” right in front of onlookers at Jackson Lake Lodge, and the scene is as dramatic as any predator-and-prey episode on the Serengeti.
Because she and members of her extended family have been so visually accessible, in a setting backdropped by the Tetons, they’ve attracted crowds, but as Wilkinson points out, they are not any less wild, nor are they anything like the famous begging bears of Yellowstone known to generations at late as the 1960s.
In all, 16 different bears (including 399’s latest cub) are descended from 399, who turned 20 years old this winter. What is sobering, however, is that of those 16 blood relatives, more than half have already died, most from human causes such as being illegally shot by a deer hunter, killed for eating livestock, relocated and then euthanized for inhabiting the suburbs, struck and killed by a car.
As Wilkinson notes, the recovery of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone rates as one of the most laudatory wildlife conservation achievements in history and a long list of helpers— federal and state agencies, communities, professional conservation advocates, citizens —are owed credit.
Huge challenges loom ahead, however, including climate change, declines in major bear foods, and Greater Yellowstone being inundated by record numbers of people pinching in on grizzly habitat.
Should Greater Yellowstone grizzlies be delisted? Wilkinson presents the opinions of people on both sides, and he lets the readers decide for themselves. But if you think delisting is controversial, it’s nothing compared to what could come next: a recommencement of trophy sport hunting of grizzlies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The way Wilkinson weaves his narrative, showing how 399 already roams a land mine of elk hunters and gut piles in Wyoming, will leave you at the edge of your chair.
Here, I will make an admission: I have known Todd for a couple of decades and have admired his skilled and unflinching reporting on regional conservation issues. His most recent book on the conservation legacy of Ted Turner gained him a national audience. But his true love is the Greater Yellowstone region—the cradle of the national park idea and innumerable pioneering wildlife conservation efforts. And he makes no bones about it—he loves grizzly bears.
He and I had our own recent grizzly encounter. Earlier this autumn while grouse hunting in the Gallatin Range, we came upon a grizzly perched on a ridge eating chokecherries and watching us. Around the bear, cattle were calmly grazing away. We didn’t panic, and Todd, fresh off of writing a story about bear spray for National Geographic online, drew his spray in the event the griz moved closer. It didn’t, and all ended well. While we didn’t bag any grouse, we were ecstatic about seeing the Great Bear in our wild backyard. It made that part of the Gallatins feel like the wild place that it is, not just the playground for Bozeman.
“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” is not only a celebration of an extraordinary bear family. It is a timely book about grizzly recovery whose success going forward rests in our hands. If we want an ecosystem with grizzlies, we have to give them space.
Dennis Glick is the director of Future West, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that helps communities create the future that they want. He has been involved in conservation and rural development issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for more than 25 years.