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A grizzly bear washed up dead. Then it was found decapitated and declawed, prompting a federal investigation.

A grizzly bear walks at a discovery center just outside Yellowstone National Park in Montana in September 2017. Parts from a grizzly bear that was discovered in Yellowstone River last month were later poached, setting off a federal investigation. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
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Sculptor George Bumann noted the brown grizzly bear’s pristine condition when he photographed the animal last month after it washed up on an island’s cobblestone beach in the Yellowstone River.

“Aside from some missing hair on his rump, he shows virtually no signs of decomposition,” Bumann wrote on A Yellowstone Life, a site he runs with his wife. " … Perhaps due to the cold waters of the river and the absence of scavengers, it looks as though the bear is asleep, or maybe anesthetized, as bears seldom sleep on their sides.”

Bumann, who creates sculptures of bears and other wildlife, wrote that he purposely didn’t share the location of the grizzly’s body. But word spread, and people were flocking to it. Montana wildlife officials were scheduled to collect the animal — found a few miles north of Gardiner, just minutes from the Wyoming border — on June 11, but when officials arrived, the grizzly’s head and claws had been cut off.

The incident is now the subject of a federal investigation since grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act, making removal and possession of their parts illegal.

“I understand the desire someone might have to take the head and claws as souvenirs, but what they did — whether they realize it or not — is a serious matter and it’s against the law,” Kevin Frey, a specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks told Mountain Journal, which first reported on the case.

This is at least the fourth illegal incident involving grizzly bears in the past 14 months. A grizzly hit by a car in September also later had its claws removed. Two other grizzly bears — one in Wyoming and one in Montana — were found to have been illegally killed last year.

Last year, a Montana man also admitted to shooting a grizzly bear in self-defense in 2017, and later cutting off its claws. The man told investigators he was mad at the bear because it was going to eat him, so he kept the claws as a memento.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it take seriously any instances of people harassing, harming or feeding grizzly bears, adding it will hold anyone who does so accountable. The Service offered rewards of up to $3,000 for information on the 2020 cases. Officials did not immediately respond to questions early Tuesday about the status of the investigation or whether a reward will be offered in connection to the decapitated bear.

It’s not immediately clear how the bear that washed up on the Yellowstone River died. Frey, who told the Idaho Statesman he first found out about the carcass on June 8, said he suspected old age. Since the bear weighed several hundred pounds, arrangements were being made to remove the animal by helicopter or boat, the Journal reported.

Before they got to it though, the bear began to draw crowds. Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone Park’s chief bear management specialist, told the Journal it was “quite the tourist attraction.”

“Every raft guide in town going down the river probably stopped,” Gunther said. “People who were rafting would stop and hold the bear up and get a picture. … I would bet that half the town of Gardiner went out and looked at it.”

Bumann first posted about his encounter with the dead bear on June 9, with photos showing its remains still intact. He reached the grizzly’s location via a friend’s raft, he wrote, and took photos and measurements for future reference when working on his art.

“The death of a grizzly bear provides a rare chance to be in the presence of one of North America’s largest carnivores; despite being post mortem, this is a great privilege,” he said.

Frey told the Statesman the bear’s body was still unharmed on June 10, but when Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel arrived the next day to remove it, its head and all four paws were gone.

“You wouldn’t know it was a bear now,” Frey added.

Bumann’s photos of the animal show a red tag on one of its ears. The bear was known to researchers as No. 394, he wrote — an adult male who lived to be 25.

“Rest in peace old fella,” Bumann wrote, adding that perhaps someday, “you will be reborn in a sculpture.”