In the cast of characters that defines our imagination of the Old West, the grizzly bear holds a prominent place. Ursus arctos horribilis, scourge of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, was a grave threat to be feared and to be conquered. Described as a “turrible looking animal” by Captain William Clark in the spring of 1805 and feared by the settlers who followed in his footsteps to tame the frontier, the grizzly bear came to symbolize the wild and dangerous West.

The artist’s brush painted a picture of the great bear as formidable foe, wreaking havoc on pack trains and startling hunters. Hollywood cinema would follow suit portraying the bear as a Western boogieman lurking just beyond the firelight, a maneater with a taste for blood.

The image of the grizzly as a symbol of the untamed West endures, but attitudes about the bear may be changing. In the new book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, The Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” Bozeman author Todd Wilkinson and photographer Thomas Mangelsen shed light on the life history of a single bear with a remarkable story. Wilkinson and Mangelsen will speak about 399, grizzly bears and their book at the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture this Friday at 7 p.m.

Mangelsen began photographing 399, the number given to the bear by researchers with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, in Grand Teton National Park 10 years ago. The images captured over the ensuing decade illustrate an improbable story of survival and offer a glimpse never before seen into the lives of bears.

Born in 1996, 399 was 10 years old when Mangelsen first focused his camera lens on her. Rumors of a sow with triplets had been circulating in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Mangelsen, who’d never seen a grizzly in Grand Teton National Park, grew curious. He spotted the matriarch at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River. She was feeding on a moose carcass with her three cubs at dusk.

“I saw her briefly in the evening just before dark,” Mangelsen told Wilkinson. “It wasn’t until spring the following year that I spent any significant time getting to know her.”

What Mangelsen would come to discover was a grizzly bear succeeding in her environment despite incredible odds.

399 and her offspring represent the last in a lineage that has been pushed to the brink of extinction. At one time an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears inhabited the American West. Beginning on April 29, 1805, when members of the Corps of Discovery killed a grizzly bear on the banks of Big Muddy Creek in northeast Montana, a virtual war was declared on the great bear.

Market and sport hunting, habitat loss and Western Expansion would see grizzly numbers dwindle well into the 1900s. By 1981, six years after federal protections were put in place under the Endangered Species Act, as few as 197 grizzlies were believed to remain in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With the exception of a equally endangered population of grizzlies in Glacier National Park, the great bear had been wiped from the West.

“It was a wake up call,” Wilkinson said during an interview in Bozeman on Friday. “I was working in Yellowstone National Park in the summers of 1982 and 1983 and they were doing everything they could to keep female grizzlies alive. It became a point of profound reflection that here you have the iconic animal associated with the iconic American national park and the bear population was in free fall.”

If the efforts of biologist at that time were to ensure the reproductive health of female grizzlies, 399 would be a model for success. In 2004 she gave birth to a single cub that would die that year, but in 2006, 2011 and again in 2013, 399 would give birth to triplets. Her daughter, 610, would birth twins in 2011, a single cub in 2014 and another set of twins in 2015.

Mangelsen would be there to capture it all.

The story of 399 took a dramatic turn in June 2007 at a place called Willow Flats. Grizzlies use the area as a hunting ground to prey on calf elk. It just so happens that Willow Flats is directly adjacent to Jackson Lake Lodge. Wildlife watchers and photographers congregate at the lodge to watch the drama play out in plain view.

“To have a beautiful sow and three cubs so visible doing the things that wild grizzlies are supposed to do, and with the Tetons rising above them as a backdrop, that’s as dramatic a setting as you’re ever going to find,” Mangelsen said.

Dennis VanDenbos, a teacher from Lander, Wyo., was at Willow Flats that June day as part of an education summit. His last day at the lodge, VanDenbos decided to go for a hike down Wagon Road south of the lodge. He passed moose and elk on his walk, but grew uneasy as he neared the thick cover of Willow Flats.

Aware of the presence of grizzlies in the area, VanDenbos turned back for the lodge. He encountered an elk acting strangely along the trail. In an instant, 399 appeared in full charge, stopping just shy of the science teacher. VanDenbos had unwittingly walked within six feet of where she and her cubs had killed and were feeding on an elk calf.

“I could now see all those teeth and the side of her head in silhouette and the hair on her back,” VanDenbos told Wilkinson. “To be honest, it was really intriguing, a silvertip grizzly with hair rising straight off her shoulder. I said to myself, ‘Why are you thinking about this now?’ But I have to tell you, it was, in its own way, beautiful.”

While backing away from 399, VanDenbos tripped. Now eye-level with 399, the bear reacted. VanDenbos covered his head with his arms as 399 clamped down on his back. The sow bit VanDenbos two more times in the buttocks. Then, with his leg pinned beneath a paw, VanDenbos saw the faces of the cubs looking at him. He fought the urge to scream. In a moment the weight on his leg lifted and her heard the cry of woman. 399 and the cubs retreated into the bottoms of Willow Flat.

“I didn’t get a sense, based on her actions, that she wanted to hurt me, or eat me,” VanDenbos said. VanDenbos, despite his wounds, relayed the episode to park rangers, saying he had provoked the attack by inadvertently coming too close to 399 and her cubs. He said he wanted no harm to come to the bears. Remarkably, they were spared.

As word of the attack and subsequent exoneration of the 399 reached the press, a sensation was born. Social media erupted with millions of followers sharing the story on Facebook and Twitter. 399 became a global icon. Scores of people around the world came to Grand Teton National Park to see 399 and her cubs.

Mangelsen was now surrounded by large masses of tourist that often behaved poorly in response to 399. The sow and her cubs were approached daily by uninformed people aiming for a cellphone photograph to post on their Facebook accounts, a badge to prove to their friends they’d seen the famous bear.

“There is a mythology that any grizzly bear is going to be aggressive, and yet what (399) is demonstrating is an enormous amount of tolerance for us,” Wilkinson said. “Would Tom say, ‘I’m part of the problem by calling attention to these bears.’ He would say definitely, yes, but by and large Grand Teton National Park has done a good job of managing those people.”

Wilkinson said the yearning to see grizzly bears in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks represents a cultural shift that is occurring at a global level. This generation, he said, may be the first to perceive grizzlies not as voracious man eaters marauding the West, but as economic assets that draw millions of dollars to local economies.

Yet the future of the great bear in the New West is far from certain.

With the population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem now recovered from the low point in the 1980s, wildlife managers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are weighing the possibility of hunting if the bear is delisted.

“There are outfitters in Jackson Hole who have vowed that when given the opportunity and legal hunting resumes, they would love to target 399 as the first bear to kill because they hate environmentalists, they hate the ESA and the federal government for putting bears under federal protection,” Wilkinson said. “Some of these guys grew up with their grandfather saying they killed the last grizzly bear or they killed the last wolf. Those are hard attitudes to change.”

Wilkinson said the recovery of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in human history. The rest of the world is watching our lead.

“What Tom is speaking to, not only as a citizen, but as a wildlife photographer, is that we have an obligation to stand up for the things we love, especially in an age when the public has become cynical and apathetic,” Wilkinson said. “I would assert that most people out there care and want to care, but they don’t have a means to express it. I think Tom sees 399 as a tangible creature that can serve as a rallying cry for grizzlies, that they deserve a place on the landscape.”

“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, The Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” is available at or locally at Country Bookshelf in downtown Bozeman.

Ben Pierce can be reached at and 582-2625.