An Intimate Look at Yellowstone's Most Famous Grizzly Mama

Despite being an iconic part of the wilderness landscape, the future of grizzlies is still an uncertain one. . (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Of the many grandeurs Yellowstone National Park has to offer, perhaps the one that's simultaneously the most endearing and most terrifying is a mother grizzy bear. To see the bulk of a huge bear ambling across the road, followed by two or three tumbling balls of fur, is one that every visitor treasures — and it's a sight that has made 399 one of the most famous grizzlies in the park.

Year after year, this skilled and successful mother grizzly has raised cubs that represent in part the future of grizzlies in the wilderness of North America. And year after year, photographers and park visitors have hoped for a sighting of the female as she guides her cubs through the park, teaching them the ropes.

Just released this fall is an exquisite book by seasoned writer Todd Wilkinson. "Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399" is packed full of photos by famed Yellowstone photographer Tom Mangelsen, who has followed 399 for years as she raises litter after litter of cubs. The book offers an up-close look at this much-loved bear, and creates a family portrait of her and her offspring. The book also details the challenges of balancing human tourists with wildlife, and calls into question the future of grizzlies in Yellowstone and North America.

Bear 399 spends quiet time with her cubs. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Yellowstone's grizzly bears were thrown under the spotlight this year, when a female bear with cubs living in the park killed a hiker. The decision over whether or not to euthanize the mother became a global controversy.

It's a controversy that 399 once faced. In an article on National Geographic, Wilkinson writes, "Nearly a decade ago, 399 and three cubs mauled a hiker near Jackson Lake at the foot of the Teton Range. The decision was made to let the family live."

That decision has ultimately played a role in the conversation about balancing predators and people in wilderness areas. The topic is given space to unfold in "Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek," with a huge selection of photographs that provide an unparalleled portrait of Yellowstone's grizzlies.

Bear 399 and her cubs experience unparalleled views. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

For nearly a decade, photographers have frequented the park with the hopes of sighting 399 and her cubs. Mangelsen has made an art and science out of following her and her offspring to create an extensive portfolio of images.

Teaching cubs the ropes takes time, patience and skill by a mother bear. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

399 and her cubs have been a highlight for visitors since she was first tracked in the mid 2000s. Able to navigate the space between wild and watched by humans, 399 has allowed visitors to witness some rare behaviors.

"To have a beautiful sow and three cubs so visible doing the thing that wild grizzlies are supposed to do, and with the Tetons rising above them as a backdrop, that's as dramatic a setting as you're ever going to find," says Mangelsen.

Bear 399 became famous among park visitors. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Navigating the dangers of humans is key to the survival of the park's grizzlies.

This is where 399 has excelled. "More important than brawn for a grizzly matriarch is brains. Her IQ for interpreting the intentions of people has been off the charts," writes Wilkinson.

The cubs stick close to 399, who will protect them from any dangers. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

In an interview with Mother Jones about 399, Wilkinson says, "There is an elk hunt that's been in Great Teton National Park, the only sanctioned big game hunt of its kind in the lower 48 in a national park, and that perennially puts bears at risk because elk are getting killed in the park, the grizzlies are feeding on the remains — the gut piles — and then hunters are bumbling into them. So every season that goes by with 399 and her 15 descendants, it's a miracle in some ways that they remain alive, because she and her offspring are walking through these land mines."

The North American landscape is incomplete without the silhouette of a grizzly bear. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Bear 399 has been a draw for visitors, and also for scientists. She has been collared many times in her life, with researchers hoping to learn from her movements. Mangelsen notes, though, there's a limit to what repeatedly disrupting and handling a bear to collar her can tell us. "[GPS collars] give us points on a map. But what those dry statistics don't measure or account for is a bear's sentience. And to me, that's what gives grizzlies their magic and a kind of soul. Let them be."

Bear 399 is known for her skill at raising cubs. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Mangelsen, in his continued fight to protect Yellowstone's grizzlies from hunters, overzealous tourists and politicians, draws inspiration from Jane Goodall. "Jane has taught me to never hold back in trying to protect the things you love, that if you act with a clear conscience, you shouldn't worry about the people you'll offend, because if you're giving voice to creatures that can't advocate for themselves, your priority should be defending them and not trying to please those who just don't get it."

The broad face of a grizzly is something no hiker wants to see up close. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

While grizzlies still face persecution by hunters, luckily the bears are becoming more profitable alive than dead, with more tourists paying to shoot them with cameras, not guns. That shift in public perception will play a big role as policy makers decide the fate of bears.

One of 399's cubs enjoys a quiet moment in the snow. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Bear 399 imparts all the knowledge she can before her cubs are old enough to venture out on her own. Here, one of her cubs enjoys the last few weeks of a (relatively) easy life under her care and tutelage.

Bear 399 guides her cubs through the park, teaching them the landscape, and of course the roads. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Meanwhile, 399 is entering another winter's hibernation, with the possibility of emerging in the spring with yet another set of cubs to raise in the wilderness of Yellowstone.

Bear 399 is the most famous grizzly in Yellowstone, and in 2015 sparked a saga that had her very life in question. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

Copies of "Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek" are available for sale, including autographed copies and limited-edition copies.