I spent 17 years photographing the same family of grizzly bears – here’s what I learned (and the number one misconception people have about them)
- Mother bear Grizzly 399 and her cubs are considered the world’s most famous grizzly bear family
- Photographer Thomas D Mangelsen has shared his most striking portraits of the family in a stunning new book
- READ MORE: The jaw-dropping winners of the 2023 panoramic photo awards revealed…
It’s the family of Wyoming grizzlies that has touched the hearts of millions and changed the public perception of one of the world’s most powerful predators.
Mother bear ‘Grizzly 399’ – named as such as she’s the 399th bear registered in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – and her cubs have a huge fanbase, with thousands of people flocking to catch a glimpse of them, often creating ‘bear jams’ along roads.
MailOnline Travel spoke to Thomas D Mangelsen, the award-winning photographer who has helped to tell the family’s incredible story through his photographs. The 77-year-old photographer and conservationist, who lives in the Wyoming town of Moose, has been tracking the family for 17 years, sharing some of his most striking grizzly portraits in new photo book Grizzly 399: The World’s Most Famous Mother Bear (published by Rizzoli).
Mangelsen says that what’s unique about 399 is that she ‘tolerates people’. He says: ‘There’s bear jams sometimes of 1,000 people, if you can imagine that. If there are too many people on the road, too much noise and people [getting] very excited… she’ll just back off and just go around everybody, which is very intelligent of her.’
Mother bear Grizzly 399 and her cubs are considered the world’s most famous grizzly bear family, living around the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. MailOnline Travel spoke to Thomas D Mangelsen, the award-winning photographer who has helped to tell the family’s incredible story through his photographs. He has been tracking the family for 17 years, sharing some of his most striking grizzly portraits in new photo book Grizzly 399: The World’s Most Famous Mother Bear. Above – Mangelsen captures a ‘bear jam’ forming as Grizzly 399 and her cubs cross a road
Photographer and conservationist Thomas D Mangelsen (above) says that what’s unique about 399 is that she ‘tolerates people’
The book notes that 399 teaches her young ‘when to scramble to their mother’s side at the first sign of danger’
And she has learned how to navigate the roads that crisscross the land around the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks where she lives. He says: ‘She’s very smart… when she does cross a highway, she will look both ways to see if there any cars coming.’
Mangelsen observes the family for 10 hours a day for four to five months of each year. At one point he waited 23 days from morning until night without seeing a bear before 399 finally came out of her den.
Aware of the dangers that bears can pose if provoked, he makes sure to keep a safe distance from the family, making sure to only shoot them from the road. He explains: ‘It’s too dangerous to be walking in the woods with any bears here, really. I don’t pursue bears because it’s asking for trouble.
‘You might come across a bear that’s with its cubs or a carcass… then potentially you can get into trouble and obviously, the bear can get into trouble more than you might.’
That said, Mangelsen notes that the biggest misconception about grizzly bears is that they’re intent on attacking humans.
In this picture, the ‘Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade’ – a team that protects the park wildlife – gets motorists to clear a lane, giving 399 and her cub Snowy room to pass through a ‘bear jam’
This heartwarming picture shows Grizzly 399 and her ‘wee quadruplets’ in Pilgrim Creek in June 2020, the book reveals
He says: ‘The number one misconception is that they’re mean and vicious, and if you get anywhere near a bear, it might attack you, or hurt you or kill you. That’s not really true. It’s not. They are afraid of us as much as we are them. They have no interest in killing people or hurting people.’
He continues: ‘They’re not out there prowling, looking for humans.’
Mangelsen says that 399 – who is aged around 27, which is exceptionally old for a grizzly in the wild – has successfully challenged this preconception. He explains: ‘What she has done is really made people aware of her specialness, and that she has [all kinds of] emotions.’
‘She is a really incredibly good mother,’ he says, noting that once people ‘see her playing with her cubs’ they realise she’s not the pantomime villain that grizzly bears are often portrayed as.
Mangelsen says of grizzly bears: ‘They are afraid of us as much as we are them. They have no interest in killing people or hurting people’
‘We are drawn to bears because of their rareness, their charismatic personalities, and their status as symbols of wildness,’ the book says of this image
In this picture, ‘Grizzly 610 [one of 399’s adult cubs] and her three cubs pass by the historic Brinkerhoff Lodge, on the shores of Jackson Lake, where famous visitors such as John F Kennedy have stayed’, the book reveals
‘A furry armada of grizzly bears, 399 and her cubs swim through the jade-green current of the Snake River,’ the book says of this brilliant image
Of this sweet picture, the book says: ‘As the matriarch of a direct bloodline that now includes more than two dozen grizzlies, including grown cubs that, in turn, have become parents themselves, 399 is distinct in another way: her longevity has given her rare elder status, imparting life lessons not only to bears but also to people around the world watching her’
Grizzly 399: The World’s Most Famous Mother Bear, featuring photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen and text by Todd Wilkinson, is published by Rizzoli. It’s on sale now for £49 ($60)
Mangelson (pictured) describes 399 as a ‘miracle bear’
‘What fascinates me is how emotional these bears can be,’ he says, adding: ‘I know that they feel joy, fear, pain and anger, all those things… they do things that we wouldn’t necessarily relate to humans, but they are very similar to us.’
In the time he has followed the family, Mangelsen has witnessed great hardships that it’s faced.
On one occasion, one of 399’s cubs was run over by a hit-and-run driver on a highway. He recalls: ‘ went out to the centre line of the highway and picked up the body of the cub, took it into the trees and laid it next to a log. Then she ran up and down the highway all night, just bawling… like a mother would losing a child in a grocery store or something.’ He notes that the park employees were forced to haze the distraught 399 off the road to prevent her from getting hit by oncoming traffic.
Another traumatic experience Mangelsen witnessed was when one of 399’s cubs got washed down the creek and she ran down the bank and saved the cub from the water.
There have been plenty of joyous moments too. Mangelsen has nicknamed one of the cubs ‘Spirit’ because it ‘has a lot of spirit in the sense that it runs around and jumps on mom and hits her in the face, and mom plays with it’.
One of the biggest dangers facing bears is the threat of hunting, which people can do with a special permit, Mangelsen notes, but he says that the fame of 399 and her family is helping to advocate for protection of the endangered species. He says: ‘She’s a miracle bear.’
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