The 34-year-old bear, who scientists have dubbed Grizzly 168, has lived as long as any grizzly documented in North America, the Associated Press reports.
Grizzly Bear Is Oldest Ever in Yellowstone Ecosystem
Wildlife officials tattooed a number (168) inside the bear’s mouth. This is part of a sequential system imposed on bears captured within the ecosystem. Normally, the grizzlies that wind up in traps these days have numbers in the six to eight hundreds or higher. The numbers extend above one thousand.
That’s why carnivore biologist Zach Turnbull did a double-take when he read Grizzly 168’s digits. So he called up his boss, Dan Thompson, to double-check what he was seeing with his own eyes.
“He was like, ‘Hey, ah, how old do bears live?’” Thompson told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “We started talking about it, and he’s like, ‘I am sure that this bear I have, based on everything I can find, is 34 years old.’”
They confirmed it by consulting a federal grizzly bear data set.
While Grizzly 168 is the longest-lived in his ecosystem, closely-related coastal brown bears and a Minnesota black bear have lived longer in the wild.
“He was born in 1986,” Thompson said. “That’s pretty wild to think about. I think I was in junior high. I know it was the year before (Guns N’ Roses’) Appetite for Destruction came out.”
The bear first received the number “168” when biologists captured and collared him in the Pacific Creek drainage in 1989. For most of the next decade, he lived with a “very high frequency” tracking collar.
But in 1997, a year after his third capture, he ditched his collar for the final time. Then he headed off into the Northern Rockies, in the prime of his life at 11 years old. Biologists have some genetic evidence that he sired at least three litters of cubs as he aged.
Roaming into the Wrong Neck of the Woods
Unfortunately for Grizzly 168, eventually he wandered south and honed in on the Upper Green River area. That section of Bridger-Teton National Forest hosts a combustible blend of cattle grazing and grizzly habitat, leading to constant conflicts.
By last summer, he was feeding on calves born to cattle grazing in the Wagon Creek area. At that point, he had lost most of his teeth. Rather than chewing on animals, the bear killed his meals by crushing them.
“There’s no real punctures,” Thompson said. “They have so much strength in their jaws they can kill an animal by basically gumming it.”
When Turnbull trapped Grizzly 168 for the final time, the bear had slimmed down to 170 pounds, and was an emaciated ghost of his former self. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley made the decision to euthanize the bear, whose future prospects were not good.
“It was sad that we had to put him down,” Thompson said, “but ethically there was nothing else that could be done.”
Wyoming bear biologists have saved the grizzly’s skull as a reminder that he was the oldest grizzly in the Yellowstone ecosystem’s recorded history. He even outlived all the females documented in the ecosystem. This is quite a feat, given that females are smaller and more conflict-avoidant and so tend to live longer.
“Among all bear studies — black bear and brown bears in North America — 34 is a really old age,” Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen said. “By all means, that’s pretty rare and unique.”