In Wyoming, the month of May is a pivotal time of awakening. As the last snow melts, the omnipresent gray-green sage assembles its winter energy and begins to release an aroma which is full of the fervor of spring. It is a benevolent and hopeful signal for the many plants and animals who will answer the call and unfurl their glories as well. One particular being is highly anticipated. She enters a field in Grand Teton National Park at this time, every year, almost religiously, even sometimes to the day. And she is always greeted by the absolute delight and awe of onlookers.
Her coffee-brown fur flows over her body like a wave when she swings her legs around in her distinctive slow gait, and a blond stripe down her right flank catches the sun with each undulation in a flash. Her 5-inch claws rake over the glacial soil as she moves, always at the ready to serve her need for sustenance. Her square nose hugs the ground with concentration, sniffing casually, her rounded ears perked, but calm. Her eyes are adjusting to the light after so many months in her den, but her blocky head is constantly turning to take measure of her four tiny followers, miniature versions of herself, romping through the grass. She is surveying her landscape as she does every year, for she is a Matriarch in totality.
This enigmatic figure is one particularly famous member of the species Ursus Arctos Horribilus, named in Latin by explorers and scientists who collaborated in their acceptance of the ferocity, and authority, of her kind. She is known to laymen simply as Grizzly Bear, but to the National Parks, and her legions of fans, she goes by a number stamped on a tag in her ear; “399”.
She is no ordinary mammal in today’s world, but an individual of lore and obsession whose presence has drawn many thousands of humans to witness her. When she appears, the gorgeously aromatic sage is forgotten. No one looks towards the newly leafing aspens, nor the happy yellowbells at their feet, nor an eagle soaring through the vast blue sky against or the snow-capped mountain range to the West. When she is on scene, all eyes are inexorably glued to her.
She has done nothing intentionally to solidify her infamy, though her devotees would say they are drawn to what she embodies; something of the wild that has yet to be tamed, conquered or harnessed by us…
Only a few thousand grizzlies currently roam the West. Though they once heavily populated the plains from the Missouri river to the Western forests, in today’s world their numbers are tremendously diluted. They occupy a mere 2% of their pre-settlement range, though that number has grown from its nadir of .05% in the 1970’s when they went under federal protection. Their decline was directly attributed to people, who crushed them under a hundred years of hunting, retribution and fear. Even today, people are responsible for nearly 85% of grizzly bear deaths per year. We humans, unfortunately, do not have a good track record for coexistence with predators.
She hails from a very small, yet hugely influential family of animals. There are only eight species of bear on Earth, and six are classified as either endangered or threatened. Grizzlies are technically a sub-species of Brown Bear, and though these large cousins who inhabit northern boreal forest and subarctic oceansides are thriving, her closest kin of Rocky Mountain interior bears, as they are called, are very much a threatened species.
It is understandable then that grizzlies tend to avoid human interaction. Their memory dictates a long-held understanding that humans are a competitive, and dangerous predator. Seeing one in the wild was at one time commonplace, then briefly sensationalized, then suddenly incredibly rare.
Several National Parks have become a place of sanctuary for animals like the grizzly. These protected wild lands have offered an exceptional opportunity to study them, whether it be through the mindful eye of science, or through a lens of pure, innocent admiration. 399 has contributed immensely to a new moment of connection to grizzlies and their continued viability in the West, and she has achieved this distinction because of her remarkable visibility.
399 has been a reliable fixture of the landscape since around 2005. In her unparalleled tolerance, she has been many people’s first grizzly bear sighting. She has been first bear for many of my friends and almost every one of my clients as a wildlife guide. She was mine, in a moment which ignited a once-tender flame into a complete zeal for nature. Books have been written about her, and thousands of dollars have been rewarded to people for photographs of Grizzly Bear 399. What is about her that compels us so?
When she first appeared in Grand Teton National park, she was immediately noticed by authorities for her curious behavior in allowing people to observe her. As per laws surrounding potential “trouble” bears, she was sedated and tagged by the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly bear study team. They calculated her age (via her teeth) to be a mature 9 years old, and she was in an admirable state; weighing a hefty 400 lbs and standing elongated at a glorious 7ft. She was a completely healthy bear in her prime. After she was released, many assumed she would move away from people and the trauma they had inflicted on her. Instead, she seemed to accept her newly-observed station and began to frequent an area well-known amongst enthusiasts to this day.
Like all grizzlies, 399 maintains a “home-range”, something similar to what we would know as a town or county. It is the region she chooses to know intimately. It is her hunting grounds, her birthing grounds, her mating grounds and the place from which she will likely never depart. Why would she? She has marked the fullest trout-filled stream, the specific willow groves which shade newborn elk, hillsides filled with heaping mounds of pocket gophers, bountiful fields of spring beauties and biscuit root (which she loves), and the whereabouts of others of her kind who would challenge, or take interest in her.
She knows when rivers will rage and bring peril in the spring, and when her favorite succulent moths will hatch in the fall. She knows the land all the way down to the day the very last purple huckleberry threatens to drop from the branch with rot. She is attuned to every minute sight and sound, from vehicles on the highway to a rifle-shot from a hunter promising her the reward of elk-guts nearly 30 miles from her den.
But not only is she an adept opportunist, like all her kind she also assumes the roll of apex predator. She is a crucially diverse and adaptable omnivore who kills, ravages and scours relentlessly for food. Her hunting skills have astounded us for years. Hundreds of species of animals, plants and insects are as aware of her as they are their own existence, and without a choice they await the inevitability of her touch, her attention, and her consumption. Her home-range is her dominion, to her it matters not that it is also a National Park.
But that is public land has been to our benefit, for we have witnessed how her many attributes have not only contributed her endurance, but also to her incredible journey through motherhood.
All bears have a unique method in conception called ‘delayed implantation’ which allows their body to determine how many offspring it can physically care for depending on their fat reserves. They mate in Spring, and their body spends months acquiring the resources it needs. Only after their season of “hyperphagia” where they consume 20,000 calories a day in the fall, will they finally become pregnant. Their body spirals deeply into the mystery of conception and will generate only the specific number of cubs it can support. The mother then gives birth in the dark of winter, barely awake, and relaxes into feeding the 1-pound cubs with her fatty milk until they emerge together to the world of light sometime in May.
Two years after she was tagged, 399 had her first set of triplet cubs, thought to be rare amongst her kind. Not only has she produced two more sets of triplets since then, she has also had litters of one and two cubs. But in the spring of 2020, amidst of human world rife with chaos, she has accomplished something almost completely unexpected; a set of four tiny, perfect, healthy-looking cubs. Never before has a grizzly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem accomplished such a feat. It is no surprise that celebration for her is underway. She has shown us something remarkable of abundance, and even the power of creation, that has amazed our human sensibilities.
Her long reign of success has been a totem of the power of the wild. She has taught us not only about potency and fertility, but also something of longevity. As naturalists we witness the tenuousness of life in the wild. In the Rocky Mountains predators often live much shorter lives than their prey. This is how nature maintains a balance. At the current age of 24, 399 not only has surpassed the average lifespan of her kind, but her many progenies continue to contribute to the landscape of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Her existence, it be can be said, is that of emissary of resilience. She has woven a story for us more memorable than fiction. She is in fact playing a crucial role in our fostering of a deeper connection with nature. For these many reasons, she has achieved the moniker of “Matriarch”.
Most people experience something profound when viewing 399 in her wild habitat. The feelings that are evoked by this unforgettable bruin are indicative of what she represents; the alchemy of imagination turned real. She is an ambassador of days beyond our memory (but near enough to picture) when her direct ancestors ruled an earth that looks vastly different from today’s. At the end of the last Glacial Maximum when ice a mile thick covered one third of our hemisphere, a lineage began on the Steppes of North America that would result in her present-day Matriarchy. One almost has a sense of disbelief that such a creature could still exist in a world of nanotechnology, 5G networks and worldwide social media connectivity. But in this bear there is something singularly wild, something of an absolute uniqueness, and without reservation we are held captivated by it.