The Guardian of the Matriarch: A wildlife photographer’s fight to protect the world’s most famous bear

Thomas Mangelsen's personal and professional legacy is inseparable from his love of Grizzly 399. As one of the first people to set eyes on the bear 14 years before, he documented her life history as she pioneered the return of grizzlies to the southern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone.

Moose, Wyo. – On a late autumn day in 2019 a crowd of local bear watchers sat at the edge of U.S. Route 191 as the world’s most famous grizzly meandered northwards. Her belly dusted the top of the frosted sagebrush, and to a novice bear watcher her wide stance and round body could have been mistaken for a larger male grizzly. Dedicated followers are never fooled, though. The bowl-shaped blonde face, the calm demeanor, and the glance both ways before crossing the highway defined only one bear: Grizzly 399.

That November day was the last time anyone saw 399 before she returned the next spring from a long slumber. When she disappeared down the banks of a creek and camera shutters stopped clicking, the mellow crowd began debating in whispers.

“I wonder how much longer she’ll live?” one said.

“She’s 24 years old, she is past her prime,” said another.

In grizzly years, 399 was well past retirement age. By now her long winter absences brought a certain amount of dread, not to mention ghastly rumors. In 2016 a hunter boasted that he had discovered 399 in her den and shot her. The man went so far as to describe her final moments of “gasping for air.” Even after 399 emerged again at Pilgrim Creek several months later, the emotional damage was not easily washed away.

“Triplets,” a weathered voice interjected from behind a large camera lens on that autumn day. It was Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer almost as famous as 399. The early evening light glared off his small circular glasses with thick black frames. His well-manicured beard was the color of the recently fallen snow. Though humble and unassuming in voice and manner, when Tom spoke all the bear watchers turned to listen.

He is known for his dramatic photographs from remote corners of the globe, but whenever his favorite bear is out, there is nowhere on Earth he’d rather be than Grand Teton National Park. He has watched grizzly 399 meander the creekside towards her den more than a dozen times. Only twice has she returned with triplets.

Mangelsen’s personal and professional legacy is inseparable from his love of 399. As one of the first people to set eyes on the bear 14 years before, he documented her life history as she pioneered the return of grizzlies to the southern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone. He had seen her bring 13 cubs from the den and was there to see her dismay and mourning the day after one of her cubs was killed by a hit-and-run driver in June of 2016.

Mangelsen was the only one to predict that 399 would have three cubs. In the end he was wrong. She had four.

“399’s story was always popular,” Mangelsen said, “but when she had those four cubs, it blew everything out of the water. It was like her saying, ‘Hey, you don’t think I can do this again? Watch this.’”

399’s history has been far from a fairytale. Near the dawn of the new millennium 399 gave birth to her first cub – a litter of one. At that time, she was a solitary bear like all the others, living her life outside of the view of visitors to the Tetons. She had no fan club, no paparazzi, no Instagram page. She was just the 399th grizzly bear to be studied in the ecosystem.

Later that spring scientists discovered that their research bear #399 no longer had the cub in tow. Though no one knows for sure what happened, it is believed that a large male bear killed and ate her cub far in the backcountry. Male bears are often an existential threat to small cubs which, when unrelated to the male, are an impediment to passing along their genetics.

Following the loss of her first born, 399 was never the same. Mangelsen has long believed that grizzly bears are highly emotional and sentient beings. “When you watch them, you think, they are so much like us in a way,” he said.

When 399 gave birth again, to her first set of triplets in 2007, she had a groundbreaking idea: co-existing in close proximity to humans where the male bears would never dare to go. It was a novel and risky behavior for a species given the scientific name arctos horribilis, but with the pain of her lost cub still ever-present, scientists believe that she got creative.

Her first year of roadside life was rocky. as She had to put trust in humans. That spring she was startled by a hiker who came upon her and her cubs on an elk carcass just below Jackson Lake Lodge. Instinctually, 399 charged the man, biting and scratching at him – likely in fear that he had come to kill her second set of cubs or at the very least steal their food. Grizzly bears who attack people are typically moved elsewhere or worse. Park officials made the decision to give the bear family a second chance, concluding that it was the man who had incidentally provoked 399. It was the first and last time 399 ever laid a paw on a human.

Mangelsen’s history too has some rough edges. Most people who know him today are surprised to find out he grew up as a hunter from a young age. Some of his most vivid memories of childhood came from duck hunting trips on the Platte River with his father.

When he shot a duck, he would hold the bird up so that his father could take his picture. He remembers vividly the smells of the ducks he shot and the bright yellow color on their bills. Being up close with wildlife – even dead wildlife – left a lasting impression. “We treated them as sportingly as possible,” Mangelsen remembers. His father brought him up on the idea that they were on the right side of the morals when it came to hunting and trapping. They always put the animals they hunted on the dinner table and treated the animal with dignity and respect.

One day, Mangelsen went out to check a trap he had set. His skills had developed over a few years and his handiwork became evermore deadly for the animals in his town. That day, however, he didn’t find an animal in the trap he had set. Not a whole one at least. Stuck in the contraption was only the furry grey foot of a raccoon. The sight haunted him. “Who would chew their own hand off to have a small chance at life?”

Mangelsen was never the same. He tried putting himself inside an animal’s mind: Do they feel pain like us? fear? joy? regret? There was something in there, there had to be. He couldn’t stand to take that away.

The thought of the things he had done to animals haunted him

Though he doesn’t fault his father for hunting, those father-son trips became harder for Mangelsen as he matured.

“In the eyes of the animals I shot or the birds I shot; I saw…. I saw that I had to give back… somehow. We all have a responsibility and a duty to give back,” he said. A short time later, Mangelsen made the decision to drop the guns and replace them with cameras.

On the walls of his galleries, Mangelsen shows images of animals through his loving eyes in a way only he could. In the field, he is their fiercest advocate. There is a drive within Mangelsen to stand up and speak out, even if it sometimes gets him into trouble.

The importance of coexisting with fearsome grizzlies is a relatively new understanding. Hatred for grizzlies alongside western expansion led to the extinction of all but two populations in the lower 48 states. By the 1970s Glacier and Yellowstone National parks were the only populations left.

Once constricted into uninhabited regions, grizzlies became welcome inhabitants to the landscape. In the early days of the two national parks, grizzly and black bears fed on park trash at dump sites behind visitor lodging, attracting tourists by the thousands. Crowds grew so large that grandstands had to be set up around dumping grounds.

Nearly a century of bear feeding took place before the number of dangerous encounters for both bears and people prompted the National Park Service to rewrite the rules. A ban was placed on feeding. Emboldened bears were killed or dumped far away. The abrupt policy change sent the species into a tailspin before bears could adapt back to their natural diets.

By 1975 only 137 bears were left.

That year, Congress listed grizzlies as endangered and began the decades-long study and recovery process prescribed by the newly formed Endangered Species Act.

By 2005, the first talks of removing the population from endangered species protections began with estimates showing there to be upwards of 600 grizzlies in the ecosystem – the number that the Fish & Wildlife Service deemed tolerable when the recovery plan was drafted.

Two years later, in 2007, federal endangered species protections for grizzlies were dropped.

Many claimed 600 was far too few to secure a future for the species in the face of climate change and anti-predator bias in local politics. Native American peoples and conservation groups filed a slew of lawsuits against the Fish & Wildlife Service. Just Two years later, the bears were back under endangered species protection.

For a decade, anti-predator sentiments and Republican politicians’ emphasis on states’ rights simmered. The failure of the delisting only fueled the fire of those who wanted a hunt, and political pressure reached a boil. Then-President Trump’s appointment to the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, promptly delisted the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly again in 2017, allowing Wyoming, Montana and Idaho a fast-track to usher-in a new era of grizzly bear trophy hunting.

In a repeat of a decade prior, Native American groups and conservationists filed lawsuits to stop a hunt from taking place. To the surprise of many, Montana opted out of a hunt altogether and Idaho planned to only allow a single bear to be killed. Wyoming planned to kill 22.

Mangelsen was irate when he heard the news, but underneath his anger was a fear that had lived in the back of his mind for a decade: 399 would be a target of hunters, the ultimate trophy to hang on a wall. The thought made him sick. To Mangelsen, 399 and her offspring are family.

He couldn’t stand back and watch. He partnered with a grassroots nonprofit started by local women that hoped to stop the hunt in its tracks. Ann Smith, the founder, drove around the town of Jackson Hole with a big sign on her car that read, “Grizzly Lives Matter.”

In the end, the campaign slogan was changed to “Shoot’em with a Camera,” which aimed to flood the hunting lottery with anti-hunters and photographers. Among the entrants was Jane Goodall, the famed conservationist and longtime friend of Mangelsen.

When the results of the grizzly hunting lottery were announced, Mangelsen’s assistant Sue Cedarholm was the first to get the news. She scrolled past lottery names one through seven hastily, not seeing the names of anyone she knew. Then the name next to number eight on the list: Thomas D. Mangelsen.

Forty-eight hours before the first grizzly was set to be shot in the Yellowstone ecosystem, federal Judge Dana Christensen blocked the delisting effort, determining that the Fish & Wildlife Service had “arbitrarily and capriciously” disregarded the long-term health of the population. With grizzlies in the Yellowstone region genetically isolated from Montana’s population, the judge believed delisting would be premature until grizzlies span the gap someday.

Mangelsen celebrated the news. Though he held the 8th tag in the hunt, which he intended to use as a photo trip, the cancellation was a far more ideal situation.

Hunters blamed Mangelsen for the hunt being canceled. “I got an email from a guy who threatened to kill me. He wrote ‘Tom, when I come back, all they are going to find is your body and your camera.’”

Mangelsen is both loved and hated. His anti-hunting stance makes him a controversial figure in the area, though to others he is a champion of nature.

With or without the Endangered Species protections, grizzlies inside Grand Teton National Park cannot be hunted. That said, bears do not recognize park borders like people do. In the fall of 2020, 399 ventured farther south than she had ever been known to in the past. She walked with her four cubs past Mangelsen’s house at the south of the park and continued 17 miles farther. For the first time in recent history there was a grizzly bear frequenting ranches and backyards in the South Jackson suburbs.

Most local residents were thrilled to have the famous bear in their backyards, but the event frightened Mangelsen who couldn’t help but think what could have happened if a grizzly hunt was still legal outside the park. Further, several of 399’s adult cubs have ventured out of the park too, only to get into trouble by finding food rewards or being persecuted by people who find grizzlies less charming when they leave park boundaries. This scene played out exactly this spring when 399’s grandcub was trapped and killed simply for visiting a residential neighborhood.

With stricter restrictions for removal of bears from the landscape, wildlife managers inside and outside the park often resort to non-lethal methods like cracker shells and rubber bullets when a bear enters an area where it is not welcome – typically a roadway where managers are unwilling or understaffed to handle crowds or if a bear is near homes and campsites. These “hazing” efforts are highly controversial in the bear watching community due to potential dangers to the animals if done at improper times.

Commonly hazing is not attempted on mother bears with young cubs as was done with a female, “Felicia” on Togwotee Pass. In severe hazing efforts, a mother bear may separate from her cubs which can prove deadly for milk-dependent young.

Relatedly, 399’s now deceased grandcub was theorized by local bear watchers to have ended up in a residential neighborhood following a series of severe hazing attempts just days after the subadult bear separated from its mother and was trying to find natural food sources and territory of its own. In that process, it found the neighborhood of Solitude where a local woman has been caught feeding bears among other wildlife for decades. When bears return to that neighborhood again after receiving food rewards, they are dumped elsewhere by Game & Fish or killed.

Relocations and euthanasia are typically only held for bears who present a concern in commercial or residentially dense areas, though in June 2021, Wyoming Fish & Game had enough of Felicia’s presence near the road. With her habitat located along a major highway route, Game & Fish with the help of the Fish & Wildlife Service scheduled an unprecedented 2 weeks of hard hazing with rubber bullets, dogs, and cracker shells anytime the bear was approaching the roadway corridor. If Felicia’s behavior didn’t change, she and the cubs would be relocated and then killed if they ever returned.

Local bear-watchers and environmental groups were outraged that Fish & Game would consider relocation and/or euthanasia for a bear who simply chose a habitat alongside a remote mountain highway. The problem was bad human behavior, not bad bear behavior, they argued. A group of photographers started a petition on change.org calling for the Fish & Game to hire staff to manage human safety rather than moving the bears. At the time of writing the petition has upwards of 75,000 signatures. Similarly, thousands of concerned citizens have made symbolic pledges to indicate how much they would donate to such a position if Fish & Game would not raise the funds independently. In spite of all the activist efforts, the agencies involved rebuked the idea, instead leaning into the strategy of reprimanding Felicia for utilizing her home territory.

As of June 29th, wildlife officials believed the intense two weeks of hazing had been successful as Felicia was not being seen near the roadway. The question remains, how long will she stay away? Even in one of the wildest ecosystems in the nation, human coexistence with nature is strained.

According to Grand Teton National Park’s Spokesperson, Denise Germann, grizzly bears are expanding their range into the southern reaches of the park among other bordering areas. This is good for the species’ recovery, though some visitors and local residents expect bears to stay within the borders of the national park – a wish that is simply impossible for a wild species. While many residents of the area are fond of wildlife, others do not take kindly to bears in their yards. Jackson Hole is a vacation town with many city-dwelling second homeowners who are less familiar with wildlife.

Germann believes that as grizzly bears utilize roadsides and neighborhood corridors more frequently as a survival strategy, locals must play a role in keeping wildlife safe. COVID-19 lockdowns, however, have caused rural towns with access to the outdoors to swell with new residents and visitors, shrinking the barriers between wild landscapes and suburban ones.

Coexistence with bears is possible, though the Jackson Hole valley has yet to find its sweet spot. In the meantime, there is both joy and hatred that surrounds 399 and the other visible bears of the southern end of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Mangelsen and others like him are fighting for coexistence with grizzlies while Wyoming Game & Fish among others are fighting for a hunt.

On the roads of Grand Teton National Park, 399 continues to raise all four cubs in view of thousands of visitors each day.

“399 has learned how to negotiate living with people. What we have to do is learn how to live with her.” Mangelsen explained. “She’s the one who can help us, and maybe bring us back to some sense of humanity. There’s no bear like her.”

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