Nothing warms the heart like a conservation story about bears—and today we have a really good one for you.
A few weeks ago, a nature photographer who lives near Yellowstone national park sent a four-word text message to Dr. Jane Goodall, the British primatologist. “Miraculously, she still lives!”
The photographer, Thomas Mangelsen, was referring to a grizzly bear known as “399”, probably the most famous wild bruin in the world. Aged 24, not only is she one of the oldest grizzlies living outside a zoo, but she has also continued having cubs to a venerable age, becoming a poster child for the recovery of bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. And no grizzly has done more, through her own behavior, to change a perception that members of her species are temperamental menaces ready to attack people at the slightest provocation.
In mid-May, the 350lb grand dame emerged in Grand Teton national park, striding alongside Pilgrim Creek. Trailing close behind the matriarch were four cubs, born this winter in a wilderness den high in the snowy backcountry. Mangelsen has been chronicling the life and times of 399 for nearly 15 years. Goodall counts herself among the bear’s most ardent admirers, and, holed up in England, was eagerly awaiting word on whether 399 had survived the long winter. Mangelsen said she was ecstatic.
The population of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region was given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 after their numbers dipped to less than 150, and scientists feared they could disappear altogether. But their recovery, thanks to habitat protection, crackdowns on poaching, and a ban on hunting, is considered one of the greatest conservation triumphs in US history.
Today, at least 700 grizzlies inhabit the region and, luring tourists, they have paid tangible economic dividends. Born in 1996, 399 has demonstrated the importance of a healthy female bear to an overall population. At least 22 bears are descended from her, both cubs and cubs of cubs (in human terms, grandchildren).
It’s possible she could become a great grandmother – a senior citizen who is still having offspring of her own.