New book on grizzly sow 399 shows perils, potential of Yellowstone delisting

Step into the realm of the most famous grizzly mother in the world during a presentation in Missoula at 7:30 p.m. Monday with Montana journalist Todd Wilkinson and photographer Thomas Mangelsen.

Mangelsen, one of America’s greatest nature photographers, spent 10 years tracking the sow known as 399, returning from the field with remarkable shots showing her struggle to survive not just the wilderness, but also her interactions with the tourists, outfitters and residents of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and their attendant ecosystems.

Now he has collected the best of those photographs in “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” an intimate portfolio that tracks the charismatic band of bears across a decade in and out of the wilderness. 

The unprecedented images show a graceful matriarch teaching her cubs – often triplets – how to hunt, cross rivers and roads, and walk among humans.

The photographs are prefaced with a section by Wilkinson, a seasoned environmental journalist, on our love/fear relationship with grizzlies.

He explains how grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were headed toward extirpation before slowly recovering with protection under the Endangered Species Act.

With deeply sourced interviews, he tells numerous stories – sometimes humorous, other times hair-raising – about how we live and interact with Ursus arctos horribilis.

Wilkinson also dives deeply into the research provided by trapping, anesthetizing, collaring and tracking grizzlies like 399. He explores the tough questions of whether the research is too much, or invaluable.

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The book is especially timely as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service debates removing grizzly bears from federal protection, which opens the possibility of trophy hunts.

The USFWS cites unprecedented growth and stabilized diversity within the population as reasons to move forward with delisting. Officials also note that in 2015 alone, close to 25 grizzlies have been killed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for livestock predation or other interactions with humans.

Wildlife managers say the recovery zone may have reached capacity, so bears are moving into areas where the potential for conflicts are greater.

Yet after tracing the family tree of 399 – mother of 10, of whom only four still survive – Wilkinson and Mangelsen show the perils facing grizzly bears even as their overall numbers increase.

They open your eyes to this mama bear who mourns the loss of her cubs, who takes them into winter dens, who watches them frolic in spring meadows. They’re wild grizzly bears in all their glory.

Monday’s book discussion by Mangelsen and Wilkinson, which is free and open to the public, is in Urey Lecture Hall on the University of Montana campus. Doors open at 7 p.m., with the presentation set for 7:30 p.m.

Copies of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” are available online at This deluxe hardback edition includes 240 pages of images and text, and is available in hardback or leather bound.