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New book zooms in on famed Wyoming bear family

The motionless brown patch nestled in the chokecherry bushes 50 yards across the draw looked like a log to Todd Wilkinson as he hunted for grouse in the forest east of Bozeman a few weeks ago. But when the log moved he suddenly realized it was a grizzly bear.

“I’m actually more afraid of other hunters than I am of a grizzly,” Wilkinson said, so he didn’t panic, and the bear ambled away, rising up on its hind legs once to look back before disappearing.

Grizzly bears have been on the Bozeman writer’s mind a lot over the past two years. The book he authored, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399,” ($60, Rizzoli) was recently published. The volume is filled with the spectacular photographs of Wyoming’s Thomas Mangelsen.

399 is a 19-year-old sow well known in the vicinity of Grand Teton National Park’s Jackson Lake. Mangelsen estimates the bear has about a 40-mile north-to-south home range. Because she spent much of her time near areas crowded with tourists, 399 is probably the most-photographed bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“I first saw 399 in 2006, and photographing her has kind of become a habit,” Mangelsen said. “She’s pretty special.”

For Mangelsen, capturing 200,000 to 250,000 images of 399 and her cubs became a 10-year photographic project that could be pursued not far from his back door. That in itself is a testament to the GYE’s growing grizzly bear population. When Mangelsen first moved to the area in the 1970s, he had to travel to Canada and Alaska if he wanted to photograph brown bears.

Now, the Jackson Valley is “in some ways the front lines of co-existence,” Wilkinson said. “And the story of 399, even though she spends most of her time in Jackson Hole, it’s a story that applies to the rest of the ecosystem.”

In 2007, Mangelsen suggested he and Wilkinson collaborate on a book. The result is the 240-page hardcover adorned with 140 intimate and scenic photographs of 399 and her 10 offspring, as well as other bears. The book features photos of cubs playing, bears walking across car-crowded roads and scenic shots with bears in the foreground and the iconic Teton Mountains towering in the distance.

“Most of the photographs were taken from the highway or a car,” Mangelsen said. “I don’t go tromping around in the woods. But she’s walked within 6 feet of my car. It’s really cool to have those opportunities.”

For Wilkinson, one of the most amazing photos shows 399 wading into a herd of cow elk and their calves at Willow Flats. Jackson Lake Lodge can be seen in the background. In the grassy meadow, 399 was teaching her cubs how to hunt elk calves as amazed tourists watched from the lodge’s deck.

“It’s as wild as anything you would see on the Serengeti,” Wilkinson said.

But what’s just as amazing to him is that for the bear and her cubs to reach the meadow, 399 had to walk across a busy highway, dodging cars and avoiding tourists “behaving pretty badly.”

“People swarm near her, and she keeps her cool,” Wilkinson said.

His theory is that 399 senses that her cubs are safer in human-occupied areas, which are largely free of large male bears that pose a threat to the cubs, Mangelsen said.

“The first year I watched her, she’d look both ways before crossing the highway,” Mangelsen said. “If the cubs didn’t cross right away she’d go back and get them.”

The human-tolerant behavior exhibited by 399 is one reason Wilkinson believes that when grizzly bears should not be hunted after they are removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

“The old assertion is we need to make grizzlies afraid of us, to respect us,” Wilkinson said, but he doesn’t believe shooting them will achieve that result.

“Nobody eats bears,” Mangelsen said, “So it’s just for trophies and, quote, sport.”

Plenty of grizzly bears in the GYE already die at the hands of humans — shot by hunters during surprise encounters, killed in collisions with cars and euthanized by managers when the bears repeatedly kill livestock, both men noted.

Mangelsen has also established a personal connection to 399 and her offspring.

“After spending so much time with them, you realize how smart they are,” he said.

Wilkinson said that any revenue states could generate by selling or auctioning off a grizzly bear hunting license to the highest bidder is puny compared to the money spent by tourists flocking to the area to see grizzly bears in the wild. Already this year, 4 million tourists have visited Yellowstone National Park, a record.

“I would argue that grizzly bears are far more valuable to the region alive than they are dead,” Wilkinson said. “You’d have to kill a lot of bears to come close to the billion-dollar tourism industry we have.”

Although he grew up hunting and trapping, Wilkinson said he doesn’t believe a grizzly bear hunt has to be conducted by states if the bears are delisted, and 399 is a great example as to why.

“So you have this incredible bear, and she has taught these remarkable things to her cubs,” Wilkinson said. “Do we really want to make a bear like that expendable? I want readers to think about that and ask those questions.”

New book zooms in on famed Wyoming bear family