Out of Bounds

Oldest Bear in the Woods

Thirty-four years is a long time to stay out of trouble, especially in a rapidly changing region near Jackson Hole

By Rob Breeding

One-six-eight. That was the number tattooed on the inside of the bruin’s lip. 

Just writing that makes me cringe. There are reasons I remain tattoo free, in an age when just about everyone sports a little ink.

The old grizzly bear was tagged back in 1989, when he was captured in the Pacific Creek drainage of Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. He was 3 years old at the time, born in 1986.

That wasn’t the only news from 1986. On Jan. 28, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all on board, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. In April, the world watched another disaster unfold at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in then Soviet Ukraine.

In October, the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in seven games to win the World Series. Bill Buckner made an error in the 10th inning of Game 6 that capped a Mets’ comeback that will live forever in baseball lore.

Alas, disaster comes in threes.

If you are a student of baseball you might have noticed Buckner recently in replays of Henry Aaron’s 715th home run; he’s the Dodger outfielder climbing the fence after Hammerin’ Hank’s high drive, the ball again out of reach.

Good ole No. 168 was a fluffy cub when he emerged during spring training to live the longest documented life of any wild griz. There may be never-captured grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that lived longer, but that’s what “undocumented” means.

Thirty-four years is a long time for a bear, longevity that attests to 168’s skill at staying out of trouble. In the end though, he’d lost that skill. He was captured south of Jackson, in the Green River drainage last July, emaciated and surviving on rancher’s calves. He weighed about 170 pounds, a little less than in 1989. His only teeth were three canines, all worn to nubs.

Biologists put 168 out of his misery, ending his run in 2020.

He was an old bear, but 34 is barely the teen years for some long-lived beasts. Jonathon, a Seychelles giant tortoise, is thought to be the oldest living land animal at 189. Jonathon isn’t exactly a wild animal — wild is a bit of a stretch whenever you’re talking giant tortoises. He has lived on an island in the South Atlantic for more than 100 years and is blind from cataracts, but he is well cared for and fed a special diet to keep him going.

Elephants have lived into their 80s in captivity. In the wild, they roam the savanna for 50 to 70 years. 

Greenland sharks may be the oldest of all vertebrates with a life span beyond 200. One 16-foot shark was estimated to be 392 years old, plus or minus 120. At the high end that’s a pretty crusty 512.

Plants take top honors, however, and some clonal tree species have estimated ages well into five figures. The oldest individual tree is Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains, at 4,852 years based on tree ring core samples.

Researchers have used dendrochronology based on the overlapping tree ring record of living and dead bristlecone pines to trace back nearly 10,000 years of climate history in the Great Basin Desert.

None of that diminishes the longevity of 168. Thirty-four years is a long time to stay out of trouble, especially in a rapidly changing region near Jackson Hole, where he lived most of his life.

Here’s a little more trivia about 168: he shared his birthday year with sprinter Usain Bolt and also singer/actress Lady Gaga. 1986 was also the year Cary Grant died. 

“Bringing up Baby” to “Poker Face” to 168’s quiet end near a small creek in Wyoming.

That’s some dendrochronology.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

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