(Lander, Wyo.) - Wildlife agencies focus on populations – the sum of the members. But in managing a species, sometimes an individual animal stands out in making a significant contribution to the program. Grizzly bear 179 is one such story.
To look at her, and biologists have plenty in trapping her eight times, she’s a rather typical grizzly sow – deep brown fur and about 300 pounds. As a result of that handling she’s provided an important journal of information for managing and recovering the species, including habitat and highway insights from thousands of locations transmitted by her radio-collars and diet and genetic information from her blood and hair samples.
179’s last trapping was June 2012 in the Blackrock area east of Grand Teton National Park. She wasn’t in trouble as sometimes happens with grizzlies, it was a research trapping operation – as all her captures have been since 1990.
“She’s contributed so much data to grizzly bear recovery, not to mention raising at least 11 cubs to independence,” said Dan Bjornlie, large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The story of this important bear started in late August 1990. Yellowstone National Park and Montana wildlife officials responded to a grizzly sow and a pair of yearling cubs raiding an apple orchard and chicken coop near Gardiner, Mont. The sow was No. 79, and was well known for leaving the park every fall for the valley’s apples.
She was helicoptered to the remote Thorofare in the southeast corner of the Park. Tagged 182 and 179, the two female cubs were trucked to the Glade Creek area off the northwest corner of Grand Teton National Park. It was hoped separating the yearlings from their mother would help keep the youngsters out of trouble. That decision was soon validated: 79 was back in the Gardiner area in just a few weeks.
182 roamed a fair distance northwest and was trapped on the western shore of Yellowstone Lake in July 1994, dropped her collar near Heart Lake in Yellowstone in July 1996 and has not been heard from since.
179 on the other hand, has kept in regular touch. In 1991 northern Grand Teton was her home and the next year she moved east to the Buffalo Fork area, which has basically been her home ever since.
179 is obviously savvy to survive 24 years, but she’s not too trap savvy being enticed with road-killed big game into a culvert trap five times and a leg-hold snare thrice. She’s worn a radio-collar for 13 of her 24 years (inconvenient for her, but very beneficial for the body of work to recover the species).
Whether it’s the first or eighth trapping, all bears donate blood and hair samples, get weighed and have their body fat measured. The samples provide a wealth of insights into DNA, parentage, diet and disease.
After her mother got her in a little trouble as a yearling, 179 has had only one minor discipline problem: Pulling bags of alfalfa pellets out of a horse trailer during the drought of August 2002. As Bjornlie and Bear Management Officer Brian DeBolt erected electric fence around the trailer, they were amused to see 179 spying at them from nearby timber.
179 was part of the species’ expansion east towards Togwotee Pass in the early ‘90s. That put her in an area of more frequent research trapping as the program inquired how bears were using the habitat. Additional developments arose requiring more data on how the bears reacted to cattle grazing allotments removed from the area, Togwotee Pass highway construction and the decline of white bark pine. 179 helped the program better understand all these points.
Precise bear accounting is required in the recovery effort. Those numbers kicked off in 1975 when the grizzly was listed as threatened and bear No. 1 was tagged in the Crandall Creek area northwest of Cody. 79 was numbered in October 1981, 179 in 1990, bear 300 in 1997 and the latest collar, 771, on an adult male just north of Cody in October 2013.
Many of these numbers may be talked about when grizzly bear biologists and managers toast the recovery of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population. 179 may not be at the table, but will certainly be recognized.
“Bear managers have worked hard to carefully research and monitor the population, provide adequate habitat protections, and reduce conflicts and mortalities,” Bjornlie said. “Bears like 179 did the rest.”
–Wyoming Game & Fish Department