There are more than 750 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, but none as famed as a brawny, cocoa-colored male dubbed No. 211.
He was best known by his nickname, which was inspired by his fight-maimed face and damaged right ear: Scarface. He roamed far, wide and often within sight of delighted tourists and their cameras. He was captured, collared and released by biologists 17 times, making him “one of the most studied bears,” in the region, according to the Associated Press.
By last fall, those scientists were warning that Scarface might not make it through the winter: He’d dropped from a peak of 600 pounds to 338 pounds. At 25 years old, he was elderly.
They were right that his time was short. But Scarface didn’t die of natural causes. Last week, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department released a statement that said No. 211 had been fatally shot in November near Gardiner, Mont., just outside Yellowstone’s northern edge.
The bear’s death is now under investigation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, because grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and most killings not carried out in self-defense are illegal. The Montana state agency offered no details about the killing or why it was not announced sooner, and a Fish and Wildlife representative contacted by the Washington Post declined to comment.
The killing of the famous bear is sure to fuel opposition to recent Fish and Wildlife proposal to remove federal protections for grizzly bears in the so-called Greater Yellowstone Area, which could lead Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to approve hunting of the animals. Grizzlies were declared threatened in the 1970s, when hunting, trapping and other issues caused their population to fall below 150.
Federal officials say the bears’ population has recovered, but many conservation and wildlife organizations are fighting the proposal. The Sierra Club, for example, has said the “bears’ naturally slow reproductive rate, loss of key food sources to climate change, and state plans to reduce numbers through methods like trophy hunts, all spell disaster.”
Scarface’s killing is being widely mourned among those familiar with the bear. He’d earned a reputation as an unflappable “king of the woods,” in the words of Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management program leader, who spoke to the AP shortly before the bear’s death.
Scarface was first captured in 1993, when he was a “sub-adult” bear weighing 150 pounds. At his peak, the bruin tipped the scales at about 600 pounds, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But he’d grown emaciated in recent years, the agency said, noting that less than 5 percent of male grizzlies live to the age of 25.
Scarface owed much of his fame to the scuffles with other bears — over females, carcasses and dominance — that had made his face so recognizable, and that had so destroyed his right ear that it flopped over. Photographers, in particular, have sung his praises — and, in recent days, angrily mourned his loss.
“I’ve seen him almost kill a black bear for getting too close to his carcass in Antelope Valley and I’ve seen him barely bat an eyelash at people who find themselves far too close,” nature photographer Simon Jackson of Ghost Bear Photography wrote on his blog two years ago, adding that he’d seen the bear 20 times over the years. “There is no one animal that has inspired me like Scarface nor any animal that has played such a profound role in defining the person I’ve become.”
Last week, as news of the bear’s death spread, Jackson’s blog published another post. “Our emotions alternate between shock, sadness, anger and a profound sense of loss,” Jackson and fellow photographer Jill Cooper wrote, urging people to campaign against the proposal to de-list the grizzly bear. “Nothing will bring back our beloved Scarface, but we can still do right by the many bears he fathered and all of the bears that shared the landscape he once roamed.”
Sandy Sisti, a wildlife photographer who blogs at Wild at Heart Images, wrote a paean about seeing “Yellowstone’s Grand Old Man” in all corners of the park and watching as he grew more scarred over the years.
“As happens each year as spring approaches, bear watchers anxiously await news that Scarface has made it through yet another winter,” she wrote. “When evidence of his first sighting is confirmed, it will be acknowledged with a sigh of relief and with hopes that we will again have the opportunity to see this amazing bear one final time as he makes his way through the wilds of Yellowstone.”
Sisti wrote that in March 2014. Scarface would make it through only one more full winter.