Back to Stories

How Do We Continue The Miracle Of US Grizzly Conservation?

Fate of Jackson Hole Grizzly 399, human-bear co-existence and Montana laws hostile to grizzlies will be discussed in virtual town hall Monday night by Servheen, Hilty and Mangelsen. You're invited

    "Spring's Surprise—399 and Quadruplets," a photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen used with permission. To see more of Mangelsen's work go to
    "Spring's Surprise—399 and Quadruplets," a photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen used with permission. To see more of Mangelsen's work go to

    by Todd Wilkinson

    If you’ve been reading the regional news and you care about the wondrous things of the natural world,  then you know famous Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399 and her four cubs are in trouble, navigating human land mines.

    They are strolling prior to hibernation this year in perilous straits—conditions even more treacherous than navigating a landscape full of elk hunters in the woods of northwest Wyoming leaving behind carcass piles that attract hungry bruins.

    This grizzly fivesome has been wandering widely in Jackson Hole, moving through developed areas and neighborhoods, across busy highways—all in a search for food. That’s what grizzlies do in autumn when they are preparing themselves for several months of slumber. They need to take in as many calories as possible to fatten up for winter. Nutritional health makes all the difference.

    All bears are racing to fatten up before winter sets in. This year 399, a 25-year-old matriarch and her family of yearlings, has gotten into unnatural food. The same thing is happening with grizzly and black bears in Paradise Valley,  Montana, in the outskirts of Bozeman and Big Sky and many other places.

    Here’s the punchline: “If something bad happens to 399 and her cubs, it’s not going to be her fault. The blame will rest on humans who did something stupid.” 

    That assessment comes from Dr. Christopher Servheen, who spent three-and-a-half decades overseeing national grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from his office in Missoula. Servheen is today retired and serves as an executive with the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

    399’s fate rests in our hands and it ought to serve as a wake-up call—yet another reminder that living in Greater Yellowstone comes replete with personal responsibility. The things we humans may have practiced elsewhere—being casual or haphazard with how we dispose of garbage— don’t work here. 

    “What’s happening in Jackson Hole right now with 399 is a test that we knew was coming,” notes Tom Mangelsen, the noted nature photographer who has been chronicling 399 and several litters of cubs for 15 years. “People forget that grizzly conservation is a miracle and it only happened because we humans changed our behavior.”

    On Monday, Nov. 8 from 6:30-8 p.m. MST, Servheen and Mangelsen will partake in a public discussion about grizzly 399, the story of bear conservation in the Northern Rockies and challenges facing bears now that Montana has passed controversial laws that Servheen believes will hobble ongoing bear recovery. 

    Along with Servheen and Mangelsen, another esteemed panelist will be Dr. Jodi Hilty, president and American senior scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative that has championed bioregional connection in the Northern Rockies. Hilty will share insights into how our neighbors to the north in Banff and Canmore, Alberta are in many ways light years ahead of us in championing responsible human behavior in griz country. 

    You are invited to listen in and, if time permits, asks questions. The forum is co-hosted by Explore Big Sky and  Mountain Journal. It is free and made available via Zoom and on the EBS Facebook page. It will be a chance not only to hear from experts who have spent many, many years observing nature, but to also become informed.  The Zoom link is:   Please share it with your friends.

    Where for many years Servheen was a firm backer of states regaining management authority over grizzlies once they were removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, now he is reassessing his position.  He says that Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and the majority of politically appointed members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission don’t understand bear biology, the science of bear management or that fact that bears are not the menaces that members of the Montana Legislature portrayed them to be.

    Perhaps the best example of all is Grizzly 399 who has successfully raised several litters of cubs in close proximity to people in Grand Teton National Park. She has demonstrated that grizzlies are not impetuous bloodthirsty beasts prowling for trouble with people. She has been tolerant of humans and taught her cubs how to navigate landscapes with intense human footprints.

    Today in Montana, and if grizzlies are ever removed from federal protection, state laws would prohibit the ability of bear managers to relocate grizzlies outside the grizzly bear recovery zone—an area that Servheen says was established mostly to reflect where grizzlies were on the landscape in 1975. 
    Bears were brought under federal protection because the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho showed they were incapable of maintaining healthy populations, emanating a mindset remarkably similar to the one being expressed by Gianforte and his political appointees, Servheen says. 

    Along with Servheen, Mangelsen brings many decades of insights about wildlife conservation. It was only a few years ago that he was profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

    Joseph O’Connor, editor-in-chief of Explore Big Sky, and I welcome you to tune in Monday night. We know it will make for a fascinating conversation about the fate of an animal that defines the essence of wildness in the Northern Rockies.  

    Again, tune in to the webinar Monday Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. MST to watch the discussion:
    Todd Wilkinson
    About Todd Wilkinson

    Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
    Increase our impact by sharing this story.
    Defending Nature

    Defend Truth &
    Wild Places