Yellowstone’s Oldest Grizzly Bear was 34 and Still Killing with 3 Remaining Teeth

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   01.25.21

Last summer, wildlife officials set out to capture a grizzly bear in southwestern Wyoming that had been preying on calves in the Upper Green River Basin area. The bear turned out to be well known by biologists, and has been confirmed as the oldest on record in the Yellowstone region.

In fact, the 34-year-old griz – who was referred to as ‘Grizzly 168’ – lived for as long as any grizzly on record in North America.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department first made contact with the male bear in 1989 when he was just three years old, and tattooed the inside of its lip with the number 168. The digits are part of a sequential system imposed on the animals who are captured within the ecosystem. Today, most grizzlies that are re-captured all have numbers in the six to eight hundreds, or even higher! For those who are curious, the numbers extend well above one thousand.

According to U.S. News, the oldest bear to be captured in an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team trap in 2019 was sporting the numbers 394, a mature male captured for research in Yellowstone’s Antelope Creek area.

That explains why carnivore biologist Zach Turnbull was initially perplexed when he finally made-out Grizzly 168’s numerals. So he hopped on the phone with his boss, Dan Thompson, to ask him a question about the tranquilized animal that seemingly traces back to the Reagan administration.

“He was like, ‘Hey, ah, how old do bears live?’” Thompson explained to 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.’”

A check of a federal grizzly bear dataset confirmed Turnbull’s findings.

It’s worth pointing out, though, while Grizzly 168 is believed to be the longest-lived bear in his ecosystem, closely-related coastal brown bears have actually surpassed that longevity in the wild – the same can also be said for a black bear in Minnesota.

“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.”

History of Grizzly 168

Like I mentioned above, the bear first received the number “168” after being captured and collared back in 1989 – three years before I was even born!

In 1997, a year after his third capture, he ditched the collar for good and headed for the Northern Rockies. 11-years-young and in the prime of his bear life. Biologists even have evidence suggesting he sired at least three litters of cubs during his lifespan!

More recently, Grizzly 168 made his way to the Upper Green River area. This section of Bridger-Teton National Forest holds an abundance of grazing cattle and grizzly habitat that lended perfectly towards the bear’s growing age. At this point, he had lost most of his teeth so rather than chewing, the bear killed his prey pretty much by crushing them.

WYOMING GAME AND FISH DEPARTMENT / COURTESY PHOTO

“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.”

When 168 was captured last summer, he was down to just three nubs basically for canines, making it ever more likely that he would seek easy prey, such as calves, Thompson said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the decision to euthanize the bear last July.

“It was sad that we had to put him down,” Thompson said, “but ethically there was nothing else that could be done.”

On top of only having a few teeth remaining, the bear was severely underweight weighing 170 pounds – just a fraction of the 450 pounds he weighed as a 5-year-old when he was captured in the Shoshone National Forest in August of 1991.

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.

“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.”



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