I’m currently on a US tour raising awareness around rhino poaching in my homeland, South Africa. I took a few days out to enjoy an American wilderness, and with a stroke of luck I was introduced to the sweeping landscapes of Grand Teton National Park by legendary nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen.
In the foreword to Tom’s book culminating 40 years of his life’s work, ‘The Last Great Wild Places’, Dr Jane Goodall describes Tom as a ‘supreme photographer and passionate defender of wildlife seeking to find the soul, the spirit, of that which he is photographing.’
Of all Tom’s subjects, the grizzly bear roaming through his own backyard of Grand Teton and Yellowstone, is the animal Tom has spent the most time with – specifically the most famous family of grizzly bears in the world, led by Matriarch 399.
The future of grizzlies is now in the crosshairs as politicians and hunters take aim
Over the last decade he has held his breath while 399 has defied death on multiple occasions, such as the time he watched her run the gauntlet between a line of elk hunters. He has quietly observed her exceptional talent in navigating ‘bear jams’ on park roads, raising her precious cubs to do the same.
There are very few places in the world where you can stare into the eyes of a grizzly. That privilege, wonder and hopeful encounter is shared by the four million visitors that are drawn to Greater Yellowstone, but the future of grizzlies is now in the crosshairs as politicians and hunters take aim. Earlier this year a document emerged detailing plans by Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to divvy up trophy-hunting permits for grizzlies, somewhat insensible to the fragility of the bear population.
Grizzlies reproduce extremely slowly, and according to bear biologists anything above a five per cent hunting quota could force the reproduction of grizzlies into a downward spiral. Based on a Greater Yellowstone population estimate of 674, that’s a maximum of 34 hunting tags; way below what the states are gunning for.
On my first drive through Grand Teton Tom pulls up to Teton Point Overlook just east and north of the Schwabachers Landing near the Snake River. I take in the expansive views of the majestic Teton Mountains, clear blue skies and sagebrush-dotted terrain. “This is one of the locations where the annual elk hunt would take place,” Tom tells me as he points to a tree line in the distance. “In 2012 the first of the grizzlies killed during the hunt lost his life when a man came across the bear eating an elk carcass. He claimed self defence.”
Dr Jane Goodall describes Tom as a ‘supreme photographer and passionate defender of wildlife seeking to find the soul, the spirit, of that which he is photographing'
At this point I turn to Tom, perplexed at the notion that there would be any hunting allowed in a National Park and I am told that this is the only National Park in the US that allows hunting. I begin to imagine hordes of tourists feeling their stomachs turn as their peaceful wilderness holiday is suddenly interrupted by a hunter cutting up his trophy with a chainsaw – disturbing for visitors, and a potentially lethal food attraction to bears.
That year the state issued 725 elk hunting tags. Two years later, after many close calls, the park decided to close the Snake River bottom to hunting and expanded other areas in the park to appease the hunters. It’s ironic really, that on paper the hunt is described as a ‘reduction’, and yet in the winter National Elk Refuge feeds the animals to prolong their lives.
We drive another 20 miles, passing moose, pronghorn and bison dotted across alpine terrain. Just beyond the famous Oxbow Bend with Mt Moran reflecting over the pristine lake, we arrive at Pilgrim Creek. Tom turns off the engine and casts his eyes onto the road separating us from the woodland.
“This is where 399’s cub was killed in a hit and run on June 19,” Tom tells me as I begin to imagine the scene of the crime; blood staining the asphalt, drag marks where 399 tried to pull her cub to safety. Hours and days later she was seen moving erratically throughout the Pilgrim Creek drainage, her grief-stricken wails piercing the air. After a long pause Tom continues, “She really was a good mom, and she taught her cubs to be savvy. She has always shown remarkable composure and tolerance while leading her brood through the human chaos of onlookers.”
Bear researchers describe 399 as an extraordinary mother, with at least 17 offspring in her lineage. She has taught her cubs to be mindful of the human fan club that rush to take their photograph, but the path of a grizzly is paved with many challenges and less than half of 399’s offspring have survived due to various clashes with humankind. Other factors that challenge the survival of the grizzly include climate change and loss of key food sources.
According to a study published by the Journal of Environmental Management, grizzlies in Yellowstone alone contribute millions of dollars in economic value. Research indicates that if bears were removed from the Yellowstone landscape, annual spending in the local economy by park visitors would decrease by about $10.1 million, resulting in a loss of 155 jobs.
Clearly the bear is worth more alive than dead - and there is nothing sustainable about the hunting of an endangered species. But putting statistics to one side, these grizzlies are sentient animals. They are conscious of the decisions they make, they feel joy and sorrow, and they do not forget the suffering. If we allow the grizzlies to be hunted we are not only allowing this iconic species to spiral towards extinction, but we are allowing a piece of our own humanity to be lost along the way.
Thomas D. Mangelsen is regarded as one of the most influential nature photographers of all time. View his work at mangelsen.com and follow ‘The Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek’ on Facebook. -This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.
To read more Virgin Unite articles about conservation be sure to check out our In Focus theme: Climate & Conservation