Zach Turnbull could barely make out the emaciated grizzly bear’s inside-lip tattoo, and when he did decipher the digits — 168 — they just didn’t seem right.
The Pinedale-based large carnivore biologist dialed up his boss, Dan Thompson, to make sense of a tranquilized animal that seemed to somehow span careers and trace all the way back to the Reagan administration.
“He was like, ‘Hey, ah, how old do bears live?’” Thompson remembers of the exchange. “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.’ ”
A check of a federal grizzly bear dataset confirmed the news. Remarkably, Grizzly 168 is, so far, the oldest grizzly ever documented in the tri-state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The bear, in fact, lived as long as any grizzly on record in North America, though closely related coastal brown bears have bested that longevity in the wild — as has a Minnesota black bear.
Large carnivore supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Thompson said his team was able to pinpoint Grizzly 168’s age.
“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 number tattooed inside the grizzly’s mouth hinted at his extraordinary age. Those digits — assigned to bears captured in the ecosystem — are sequential. Nowadays, most grizzlies that end up in traps because of conflicts or for research have numbers in the six, seven, eight-hundreds or even higher — they go well beyond a thousand. In 2019 the oldest bear that ended up in an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team trap was ink stained with No. 394, an old male captured for research in Yellowstone’s Antelope Creek area.
That explains Turnbull’s initial confusion in the summer of 2020. The one-hundred-something bears are relics of yesteryear, animals from an era when grizzlies were more concentrated in the Yellowstone region’s core.
Indeed, when the late 34-year-old bear was captured, collared and assigned “168” as a 180-pound, 3-year-old in the Pacific Creek drainage in 1989, it was even before two infamous Togwotee Pass cattle killers (Grizzlies No. 203 and No. 209) registered on bear biologists’ radars.
For much of the decade following his first capture, Grizzly 168 was a marked bear that off and on sported a “very high frequency” tracking collar. By 1991, at age 5, the male grizzly had grown into a large, powerful animal, estimated at 450 pounds by biologists who immobilized him in the Middle Fork of Long Creek on the Shoshone National Forest on Aug. 31 that year. Five years later, in May 1996, he was captured again, this time due north of Dubois near Brent Creek.
The Game and Fish biologist who trapped, darted and sedated the male grizzly in ’89 and ’91 was Kirk Inberg, a young biologist who tragically lost his life in a plane wreck that also killed Kevin Roy and Ray Austin. The trio was tracking a wounded radio-collared grizzly when their Maul M-5-35 went down unseen in October of 1991, but it wasn’t until four years later that two female elk hunters encountered the wreckage 11 miles into the Teton Wilderness on the slopes of Soda Mountain.
In 1997, the year after his third capture, Grizzly 168 cast off his collar for the final time. The male bear would have been 11 years old and in his prime when he set off into the Northern Rockies as a more anonymous grizzly, Thompson said.
“Then, 23 years later we caught him in the Upper Green,” he said.
In the intervening years, there are some indications of what Grizzly 168 was up to. Although a wild bear whose travels and territories will remain a mystery, he did leave some hints by spreading his genes.
As a 19- or 20-year-old bear, Grizzly 168 sired a three-cub litter born to Grizzly 279. That would have been 2005 or 2006, Thompson said. While that’s old for a wild male, there’s decent genetic evidence that the wizened ursine kept on breeding as he aged. Based on blood collected from dozens of grizzlies handled by Game and Fish and federal study team biologists annually, there’s a “good potential” that he sired another litter in 2009, when he would have been 23 years old. He wasn’t done.
“It’s not 100%, but based on the genetic evidence we have, there’s a likelihood that he bred as a 31-year-old male,” Thompson said.
Two cubs were seen after emerging from the den from that litter. One of the youngsters was evidently later lost, but the adult female and her remaining cub were captured and relocated in the fall of 2018 after damaging a cargo trailer attempting to gorge on grain, he said.
Unfortunately, the realization of Grizzly 168’s extraordinary longevity came in conjunction with his demise.
At some point later in life, the old male evidently drifted south and zeroed in on the Upper Green River area, a part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest where a mix of cattle grazing and grizzlies has stirred chronic conflicts. By July of 2020, he started resorting to the easiest hoofed prey, calves born to cattle grazing in the Wagon Creek area. The evidence that Grizzly 168 was the culprit in those depredations was spelled out in their hides.
“You’ll skin them and there’s like terrible bruising, but there’s no real punctures,” Thompson said. “They have so much strength in their jaws they can kill an animal by basically gumming it.”
By the time Turnbull trapped the male bruin, he was down to an estimated 170 pounds, with three bulbous nubs for canines — and no other teeth at all. Grizzly biologists use a 1-to-5 body condition score when they capture animals in the Yellowstone region.
“On the form, it was written zero,” Thompson said.
Bear 168 was a bony shell of his former self, and his prospects for a conflict-free existence into the future were not good.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Hilary Cooley, made the final call to euthanize the withered grizzly, which was old enough to be dealing with sensory deficits. Relocating the animal, even though he had avoided known conflict for decades, “wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” Thompson said. The 34-year-old grizzly drew his last breath on July 30, 2020.
“It was sad that we had to put him down,” Thompson said, “but ethically there was nothing else that could be done.”
The state bear biologists held on to the skull, which is being cleaned and will be saved to serve as a reminder of the oldest grizzly ever known to inhabit the Yellowstone region. Grizzly 168 outlived all females documented within the ecosystem by four years, which is especially impressive considering the smaller-bodied and less conflict-prone females usually live longer.
Of course, there is the mystery of unmarked grizzlies out on the landscape. Hundreds are denned up across the ecosystem, and one or some of them could have surpassed 34 years of age without detection, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen pointed out. They could be out there right now.
“But among all bear studies — black bear and brown bears in North America — 34 is a really old age,” van Manen said. “By all means, that’s pretty rare and unique.”