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.