In the wake of the recent (and mighty controversial) decision by the United States Department of the Interior to remove the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear from the country's Endangered Species List, we have new insight into the death of one of that population's highest-profile grizzlies: the old, much-photographed male called Scarface.

Scarface striding across Lamar Valley back in 2015. Image: Neal Herbert/NPS

Researchers labelled the bear No. 211, but many Yellowstone wildlife-watchers knew him by the nickname that the clawed-up right side of his face earned him: battle scars likely picked up in rumbles with other male bears (or boars).

At an estimated 25 years old, Scarface was found shot dead in November 2015, though his death wasn't revealed until the following spring. Not much else was known publicly about the circumstances until a Freedom of Information Act request recently prompted the US Fish & Wildlife Service to release its investigative report on the grizzly killing.

Scarface, it turns out, was felled by two bullets fired by an elk hunter along Little Trail Creek, just a few miles outside Yellowstone National Park's North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana. The man ran into the grizzly after nightfall on November 18 while following a trail back to his hunting camp. 

According to the report, the hunter claimed the grizzly, spotted in the beam of his headlamp, was growling and too close for comfort at some ten feet away; he said he wouldn't have fired at the animal if not for the proximity and suddenness of the run-in. "I would seriously, I'd do it all over again," he told the investigators.

Biologists first captured Scarface as a three-year-old in 1993. They'd ultimately live-trap him more than a dozen times and attach a series of radio/GPS collars, yielding an unusually detailed chronology of his physical development over two decades. 

Why did Scarface allow himself to be captured so repeatedly? "Whether he's not smarter than the average bear, or perhaps, just considers a free meal of road-killed deer or elk inside a giant cylindrical bear trap worth being drugged, weighed and fitted with a new radio collar, isn't clear," noted Associated Press journalist Keith Ridler in a profile of the grizzly.

At his physical peak, Scarface (who earned his namesake facial marks around 2000) clocked in at some 600 pounds and thumped around his Greater Yellowstone kingdom with the singular swagger of a dominant male griz.

"In his prime, we saw a lot less of him," Kerry Gunther, head of Yellowstone's bear management programme, told Ridler. "But when he was near a road, people and traffic didn't bother him. It was stolid indifference. He was king of the woods and he wasn't afraid of anything."

In the years before his death he'd been more frequently seen along Yellowstone roadways, perhaps because his age and diminishing strength – he weighed only 338 pounds at his last capture in 2015 – meant he was now avoiding bigger boars in the backcountry.

As befits a male grizzly, Scarface called a broad swathe of country home, ranging from the Gallatins in the west to the Absarokas in the east and from the Northern Range south to the great buffalo pasture of the Hayden Valley on the Yellowstone Plateau. 

Telemetry tracking and his much-scrutinised death turn corners of this Rocky Mountain dominion into touchstones: the slopes of Mount Washburn that saw his first and last captures and which were an especially favourite Scarface haunt; Sour Creek between the Hayden and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where he was last recorded by remote signal; and of course Little Trail Creek draining Sheep Mountain, along which in cold autumn woods he met his end that fateful evening. 

The USFWS report reveals some initial skepticism from authorities regarding the elk hunter's actions after he shot the grizzly: his explanation for how the bear ended up lying in the creek shifted during interrogation, for instance. The man did admit considering not reporting the dead bear, too, though he ultimately did.

When all was said and done, the USFWS didn't find hard evidence disputing the man's claim of self-defence. On the subject of whether he feared for his life, the hunter (who wasn't carrying bear spray, a recommended non-lethal grizzly deterrent) said, "There's no questioning that." The report summarises a ballistics analysis that suggested "the bullets recovered from the bear were likely fired from a very close range." 

Explaining last month's long-anticipated decision to lift the Yellowstone grizzly's "threatened" status on the Endangered Species List, the Department of the Interior contends that grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have recovered adequately under federal protection, the population having risen from 136 in 1975 (when grizzlies in the Lower 48 states were listed) to about 700 today.

The removal of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species List doesn't change the animal's status in Yellowstone National Park, where no hunting is allowed, but it would transfer management of grizzlies outside the park boundaries to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. That could loosen restrictions on the killing of grizzlies that come into conflict with people and also raises the likelihood of trophy hunting.

(Under Endangered Species Act protection, Yellowstone grizzlies can be shot only if they're threatening someone's life or livestock, and the USFWS closely evaluates how many bears can be killed each year.) 

The argument over whether the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population still needs special protection outside the national park has been going on for years; the USFWS actually moved to delist the bears back in 2007, a decision reversed in federal court. That overturn had to do with a major sticking point in the debate: the effect of climate change on one of the Yellowstone grizzly's prime food sources, the whitebark pine. The protein-pumped nuts of this subalpine conifer provide important autumn sustenance for the bears just when they need to pack on the pounds ahead of their winter sleep.

Whitebark pines are undergoing major decline in Yellowstone apparently due to a combination of factors, including an introduced disease called white pine blister rust and a native pest, the mountain pine beetle, that appears to be increasing due to warmer temperatures and drier summers. 

Opponents of delisting (which include many conservation organisations and a number of American Indian tribes) assert Yellowstone grizzlies are too vulnerable in the face of this and other climate-change impacts, not to mention their naturally slow reproductive rate and the fact that the Greater Yellowstone population is an island, isolated from other Lower 48 grizzly strongholds. 

Some scientists, however, point to studies suggesting Yellowstone grizzlies aren't as reliant on whitebark pine nuts as previously understood, and can compensate for the tree's decline with animal protein (grizzlies in Yellowstone are more carnivorous than most in the Rocky Mountains).

(You can learn more about the background and timeline of the Yellowstone grizzly delisting process here, here and here.) 

Meanwhile, it doesn't change the complicated legal and ethical context of his killing, but biologists weren't confident Scarface would survive the winter of 2015-16 – or the following spring, when hungry grizzlies fresh from their winter dens seek out the earliest plant greenup and tussle with one another (and with wolves) over carcasses – given his advanced age and diminished condition.

So Scarface may well have died in the confines of his winter mountain fastness, or starved amid the touch-and-go springtime food-scape of thawing Yellowstone. As it happens, his path one November night intersected with an armed human who, rightly or not, was spooked enough to open fire.



Top header image: Rick Burtzel/Flickr