Grizzly 399, born in 1996, is one of the most famous bears ever photographed, thanks to more than a decade’s worth of wildlife portraits by veteran Nebraska photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, 74, who Anderson Cooper profiled this past weekend on CBS’s 60 Minutes. (The profile first aired in May, but it’s entirely possible more people saw it this past weekend, owing to the vagaries of viewer habits, summer TV ratings and the fact that, in May, it would have aired opposite one of the final episodes of Game of Thrones.). Grizzly 399, so named because of her research number, is arguably the most famous grizzly in the world, with her very own social-media presence on Facebook and Twitter. She is followed by more than 40 wildlife photographers; hundreds of thousands of tourists trek each year to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to catch a glimpse of her — “for many people, the sighting-of-a-lifetime,” Mangelsen says — and the other bears. Grizzlies are burdened with the unfortunate Latin scientific name arctos horribilis, unfortunate because, as Grizzly 399’s provenance and demeanour over the years, is neither from the Arctic nor particularly horrible.
Grizzly 399 is a successful mother, too, with 16 cubs and grand-cubs, according to field biologists who’ve followed her through the US presidential administrations now. She has taught her offspring well — including the secret, for example, to living in close proximity with humans without being harmed. Mangelsen has recorded her teaching them to look both ways before crossing a park road. (Collision by car, believe it or not, is a common cause of death among bears, especially in a park as heavily visited as Yellowstone.)
Grizzly 399 is good with social media, too, with her own Facebook page, Instagram account, and a Twitter handle. (Truth is, no one knows quite who is running these accounts, which first appeared in 2015. Although bright by ursine standards, Grizzly 399 is clearly not up to the task of navigating the internet just yet.)
Mangelsen is one of the leading photographers in the nature field. He has lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming year-round for 40 years now, in close proximity to Yellowstone and the bears that made him famous.
He has been active in the movement to keep the Yellowstone area grizzly bears on the Endangered Species List, which may seem like a no-brainer to you but in this day and age of right-leaning pro-
hunting, anti-conservation climate deniers, is anything but a certainty moving forward. Mangelsen has ventured to all seven continents to photograph a wide panoply of wilderness landscapes and the animals that live in them. His 1988 photograph titled "Catch of the Day,” taken a split second before a fish enters the jaws of a hungry river bear, has been declared “the most famous wildlife photograph in the world,” though to be fair, there’s considerable competition for that accolade.
He has received dozens of accolades throughout the decades but, as he admitted on 60 Minutes, the awards pale in comparison to his career relationship with the 23-year-old grizzly — the muse to his art.
Grizzlies carry special meaning in the American West because they hearken back to America’s wild past, when some 50,000 grizzlies roamed the lower 48 states. Fewer than 2,000 remain today.
Mangelsen’s photos, including — but not limited to — a particularly famous one he labeled “An Icon of Motherhood” are believed to have made 399 the most famous grizzly in the world.
Under the current presidential administration, the pressure is on to life hunting bans throughout Wyoming, Montana and other areas of the Rocky Mountains, including the hunting ban on grizzlies. Mangelsen worries about what will be lost, but he is determined to show the beauty and fragility of what still survives.
“It’s my gift, in a way, that I can give people,” Mangelsen said on 60 Minutes this past weekend — “hopefully to preserve what we have left, to preserve wilderness, to preserve species like grizzly bears, and make them think about it. And make them think that this is what we need to save for our children.”
The segment ended with Anderson Cooper’s narrative coda, “And so he sets out once again, patiently making his way alone, into the wild.”