Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone. Photo: National Park Service.
Driving along Jackson Lake, distracted by the spectacular view of the Tetons, you might see a dark shape from the corner of your eye. Your 10-year old son yells from the back seat, “Bear!” Then you see the grizzly accompanied by three dog-sized cubs. You watch in delight with your child as they amble through a sagebrush meadow. In the next year, and for years to come, he tells the story again and again. He speaks in school, to friends and family. “I saw grizzly bear 399 and her three cubs!” Excitedly he explains what he learned later from park rangers about how the bears live near humans in Jackson Hole and the Teton wilderness.
The celebrity grizzly bears of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are the highlight of many family vacations. These awesome sightings continue our ancient human relationship with Ursus arctos. They help our children discover a sense of wonder and curiosity about the miracle of the natural world. The lives of bears such as 399, the beloved grand dam of Jackson Hole, change our lives as we discover their world.
But, the tragic deaths of three of her offspring due to human carelessness or worse reveal how vulnerable grizzly bears are in actuality. Removal of federal endangered species protections could be disasterous for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, as well as for us and our children.
Grizzly 399 and the Vulnerability of Grizzly Bears
Grizzly 399, named with a number by grizzly bear researchers, has lived her whole life near roads that wind through Grand Teton National Park. She has been seen and loved by thousands of people, garnering countless fans. She is now 20 years old. Grizzly 399 is ancient in bear years. She is reaching the end of her reproductive life. Everyone who has seen 399 with her cubs over the years has remarked what a great mom she is: ‘the quintessential mother with muffins in the oven.’
What has she to show for it? On one hand, 399 has given untold joy to all who have seen her in the flesh, and also to those who have seen the stunning photographs of her taken by people such as Tom Mangelson. (See Tom’s great book: The Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.) But, she has done relatively little to boost the health of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population. During her life, she has replaced herself just once, through her daughter, likewise named with a number, 610.
Grizzly 399 was born in 1996. She has had four litters of cubs. Of the ten cubs born during her 20 years, thus far only four have survived. It is consistent with the prospects for virtually every grizzly bear female in Yellowstone. Only one of her cubs, 610, has produced offspring. This lack of reproductive success by 399 shows how challenging life is today for female grizzly bears. The truth is that grizzly bear birth rates are inherently low AND grizzlies are extremely vulnerable to the excesses of human killing.
Grizzly 615, a female cub birthed by 399 and later killed by a poacher, highlights the plight of Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Had 615 lived, she might have mothered additional cubs. But she didn’t — a story I tell a little later. But first…
People are Safer than Most Other Bears
Bears like 399 have made it their life strategy to seek roadsides and housing developments in order to avoid male bears who can eat their cubs. Males tend to be more wary of people. As a consequence, staying near people is a better bet for many female grizzly bears than mixing it up with potentially aggressive and deadly boars.
For the most part, people have been holding up their end of the bargain—at least inside National Parks. The public education work of Grand Teton Park’s Bear Brigade is extraordinary, and nearby Yellowstone is a similar success story (link).
Bears that seek the company of people are tolerant of us. At the same time, they do not see us as a source of food. Nor are they aggressive. According to former Grand Teton Park senior scientist Stephen Cain, “Science indicates that bears habituated to people are less likely to act aggressively towards people.”
To these bears, people are allies – even, at times, baby sitters. For thousands of years, Native peoples throughout the world have left us stories about human beings living side by side with bears, even being saved by bears. To watch our roadside bears is to realize their stature and magnificence, and the truth of many of these ancient tales left to keep our regard and relationship with the wild creatures of the world alive.
The Park Service’s roadside bear policy has not only created an ecological niche for bears such as 399, it has allowed an intimate reciprocity to flourish between people and bears. It is impossible not to see that 399 and her daughter are placing their trust and the fate of their cubs in us. We are being asked to overcome our fear and respond with grace.
So bears that adopt a strategy of hanging out near us can be quite successful. Up to a point. It is when they step outside the boundaries of National Parks that everything changes.
Three Bears: See How They Die
Bear 399 had two cubs and one grand-cub whose deaths encapsulate the larger problems facing Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population, including poaching; conflicts over livestock; and compounded screw-ups and cover-ups by government officials. What follows are three emblematic stories of tragic and unnecessary deaths.
1 The Saga of 615: a Hunter and His Gun
Bear 615, the female cub I introduced above, was shot illegally by Stephen Westmoreland on September 19, 2009, as he was out hunting on National Forest land close to Jackson, Wyoming. She had stood up to look at Westmoreland as he walked by about 40 yards away. She was feeding on the remains of a moose that had been killed by another hunter. Westmoreland was not carrying bear spray, despite the fact that bear spray has proven to work in over 90% of the cases where it has been used to non-lethally deter bears (link). Instead, he shot 615 in the chest and abdomen with his rifle, later claiming self-defense.
The interesting thing about this case is that it went to trial. An extreme rarity with grizzly bears and almost unheard of in Wyoming.
For the grizzly bear, this was the OJ Simpson case of the era, only recently supplanted by the widely publicized illegal killing of a grizzly bear in British Columbia by Clayton Stoner, a famous hockey player (link). Fans of 399, of 615, and of bears everywhere were enraged. Described as diminutive and shy, 615 up to the point of her death had made thousands of decisions to avoid barbeques, birdfeeders, and people who were not paying attention. Dubbed “Persistence”, the one thing 615 could not persist was bullets at close range.
Justice was done, in that Westmoreland was convicted by his peers of “malicious killing,” i.e., poaching. Veteran news reporter Angus Thuermer reflected later that the message from the prosecution was clear: “if you shoot a griz in Teton County without a solid self-defense alibi, I’m coming after you.”
In the end, however, we were reminded that, in the eyes of Wyoming’s judicial system, she was “just” a bear; and that her threatened status seemed irrelevant. Westmoreland paid a $500 fine and walked away. He could have been fined $10,000 and spent considerable time behind bars.
Even Jackie Skaggs, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, tried to downplay the importance of 615’s death, claiming that her connection with the famous 399 did not mean she was “more [nor] less than any other bear in the region.” (link)
Teton County attorney Stephen Weichman, the lawyer who had prosecuted Westmoreland, followed up this trial with legislation that would have required all users of public lands in the county to carry bear pepper spray (link). But the idea fizzled. Pressured by Wyoming outfitters who, according to federal data, include some of the leading grizzly bear killers, the Forest Service continues to balk at requiring the use of bear spray, even though grizzly bear mortalities caused by elk hunters are mounting.
The young female, 615, will not be the last beautiful, innocent grizzly bear whose death reminds us that many hunters are too often ill-prepared to deal with encounters with bears and too quick to pull the trigger. Alive, 615 could have enriched the legacy of the 399 clan and indeed, boosted the population. As we all know, a few good moms make all the difference.
2 The Story of 587: Bears and Cows
On July 7, 2013, a cub of 399, numbered 587, was killed in Wyoming’s upper Green River area. He was killed by Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) officials because he had developed the habit of eating livestock.
The vast wilderness of the Upper Green has been called “the Serengeti” of Yellowstone, yet this area has become a hotbed of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers because of the livestock that ranchers are grazing at public expense. Former Bridger Teton Forest lead biologist Timm Kaminski has called the Upper Green an “ecological trap” – a place that attracts bears and wolves because of an abundance of natural prey and secure habitat, but, where they tend to be killed because cows (an easy alternative prey) are dumped on the landscape with little oversight. The heart of the problem is ignorance and resistance to change, not bears.
Many ranchers in other areas peacefully work out their differences with grizzly bears without much fanfare. They employ livestock guardian dogs, riders and commonsense husbandry practices. That is not the case in the Upper Green. The tool of choice seems to be the telephone. Calls to Wyoming’s governor and high-level wildlife managers is the routine means to pressure agency officials to kill bears. They have long resisted reforms that could otherwise allow ranchers to better coexist with carnivores.
The celebrity status of 587 and the label “habituated” were marks against him in the eyes of Wyoming. “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of,” said Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson. He wrote in an article on 587’s death, “It’s obvious that they may be prone to getting into trouble in the future.” (link)
Senior Biologist Steve Cain of Grand Teton Park responded, “Being habituated to humans and acquiring a taste for livestock are two different things. No information or studies connect a habituated, non-food conditioned bear with a higher tendency to kill cattle.”
Cain is correct. State managers did not respond to the larger issue of livestock husbandry that is the root engine of conflicts that enmesh Teton Park’s roadside bears, and other bears who roam into places such as the Upper Green. The state agencies hope that delisting will make the problem of conflicts between people and grizzlies “go away.” The solution they promote is killing more bears.
There are some federal employees who have tried to prevent bear-human conflicts and the subsequent deadly outcomes in the Upper Green. Most recently, Gary Hanvey of the Bridger-Teton National Forest proposed requiring cowboys tending cattle to carry bear pepper spray. The affected ranchers responded by appealing to his higher-ups. They squelched his sensible efforts. Shortly after, Gary transferred to another National Forest.
Bullying by ranchers is part of a long tradition here. Hard working public servants are sacrificed on the altar of a selfish few who are making money from our public lands, while degrading the land itself. This outright greed further imperils threatened species such as grizzly bears. Because ranchers in the Upper Green are so resistant to any constructive change, conservation groups felt they had no option but to litigate to somehow force the matter.
Allotments in the Upper Green River stand in stark contrast to many others in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in the Northern Rockies where ranchers are working hard to coexist with grizzly bears. By contrast, ranchers throughout much of Wyoming—including the Upper Green—are counting on Yellowstone’s grizzlies getting delisted. Their quick fix hope is that a sport- hunt will purge the landscape of grizzly bears; cattle killers or not.
Beware any relative of 399 — or any other carnivore — who ventures there.
399’s clan points to another way — the possibility of a different kind of relationship between grizzly bears and ourselves.