“Where the Grizzly can walk, the earth is healthy and whole."
Written by Beto Wetter
In any species or group, certain individuals become emblematic of the whole, so when a mother Grizzly Bear came out from her den this early spring, it was not just a single bear we were observing, but an upsurge in how an entire species has come back from the brink.
The 24-year old, 160kg (350lb) bear is 399, so-called because of the research number assigned to her by the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Study Team, and 399 emerged from winter in good company, four tiny copies of herself lolling along behind her.
“She still lives!” declared American wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen, not alone among his peers in expressing euphoric elation, because 399 is a living embodiment of a miracle that continues to reshape the reputation of Grizzly Bears in the American West.
399’s extraordinary longevity is contextually grounded by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, referred to by the US Supreme Court as “the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation.” Two years later, Grizzlies in the contiguous United States (also known as the “Lower 48”) were added to the threatened category. As a result, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was formed in order to coordinate conservation efforts in the United States across multiple jurisdictions. Implicit in the Interagency was a cross-collaborative ethos across stakeholders within the context of conservation, bringing together all interested parties to help protect American Grizzlies.
As a result, in 1991, regulated Grizzly hunting ceased in the Lower 48, and in 1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed a groundbreaking revision of the 1982 Grizzly Bear Recovery Act. “The grizzly bear is a symbolic and living embodiment of wild nature uncontrolled by man,” wrote famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, “Entering into Grizzly country represents a unique opportunity – to be part of an ecosystem in which man is not necessarily the dominant species.” It is within this conservation context that 399 was born, three years later, in the winter of 1996.
“Where the Grizzly can walk, the earth is healthy and whole,” stated Lynne Seus, the Co-Founder of Vital Ground, a land trust that advocates for Grizzly conservation. It is clear from Seus’ statement that grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area, including 399, are essential pieces to the ecological puzzle of the American West. Their contribution to the stabilizing of the local ecological system - as is often the case with apex predators - is paramount.
The nationwide support offered by the Endangered Species Act continues to be a blanket protection for the Grizzly, and thus naturally by extension, for its ecosystems. It is reasonable to concur that the longevity of 399 is a direct result of federal protections, and recalls the importance of the wilderness and its conservation to the American psyche and sense of self.
Beto Wetter lives in California from where he writes environmental features for wide-ranging online and print media.