The cocoa-hued grizzly was shot just north of Yellowstone National Park in November 2015, in a forested area popular with elk hunters and bears that devour the gut piles left behind. When state and federal authorities probing the death of this threatened species found its carcass half-frozen in a creek bed the next day, they realized it was not just any bear.
The animal was tagged No. 211, which identified it as a Yellowstone celebrity — an elderly, oft-spotted bruin known as Scarface due to his visible battle wounds. And as a recently released investigative report shows, he died after being shot twice at close range by an elk hunter who told officials that he encountered the bear in the dark woods and feared for his life. The man, who reported the shooting the next morning, could have faced $50,000 in fines and up to one year in jail for the incident. Instead, authorities quietly closed the case seven months later, saying they could not disprove self-defense and so would not bring charges.
That report is now being circulated by opponents of the Interior Department’s recent decision to remove federal protections for an estimated 700 grizzlies that inhabit the Yellowstone area. Scarface’s killing, they argue, illustrates the threats going forward: humans who are trigger-happy and careless around bears, officials who do not prosecute alleged poachers, and an increasingly dangerous terrain for the bears that stray beyond Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park. The three states surrounding those parks are considering allowing the hunting of grizzlies.
“Grizzly bears roaming outside of the protected area boundaries … now face an even higher risk of being killed,” said Kelly Nokes, the carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians, one of several groups that have launched legal challenges to the delisting decision. “The murder of Scarface clearly demonstrates the very real impacts poaching has on this still-recovering population, point-blank.”
Others do not view the incident in such sweeping terms, including the shooter, who described it to officials as a moment of panic. The report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by a member of a Facebook group that opposes delisting, and it has been circulated by Kat Brekken, a Gardiner, Mont., resident who works for a concessions company operating inside Yellowstone.
The hunter, whose name was redacted from the document, recounted how he was descending a trail outside Gardiner at about 6:20 p.m. when he rounded a corner and saw the bear in the light of his headlamp. The animal, which he referred to as female, was about 10 feet away and angled toward him, he said.
“She was just right there. And close enough that she made noise, growled, and I saw her well enough and that’s time to sling lead,” the shooter told investigators. He said he took his .30-caliber rifle off his shoulder and shot the bear from his hip, adding: “I would seriously, I would do it all over again.”
Later, the hunter asked one investigator if he was “close enough.” When the agent responded that the issue was whether a person fears for his life, the hunter said: “There’s no questioning that.”
But the report indicates that the officers were perplexed by the hunter’s explanations of why he later returned to the site and how the carcass ended up in the creek. At one point, the hunter said that he and a companion came back to make sure the bear was dead and that the body fell into the creek as they tried to hold it up. He later said the bear had fallen into the water when it was shot, also acknowledging that he had returned from the other side of the creek so as not to disturb the “crime scene.”
Although he said he had considered not reporting the killing, he denied an investigator’s suggestion that he returned to hide evidence. “I was like, you know, we got to do the right freaking thing,” the hunter said. “So we went up, looked and it was a grizz. And I was like, we’ve got to call.”
A ballistics technician who examined the two recovered bullets determined they were likely fired from a “very close range,” the report says. In the end, the documents note, federal attorneys decided they did not have enough evidence to disprove the hunter’s claim of self-defense — the key detail for such cases.
Chris Servheen, who for 35 years was grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the report showed that investigators “did a careful job.” What stood out was the hunter’s carelessness, he said; the man told the authorities that he was not carrying bear spray — a deterrent recommended by wildlife officials.
“The bear does not seem to have been aggressive to him, but instead it was a surprise, close-range encounter in the dark. The question is, what constitutes self-defense?” Servheen asked. “You would not catch me or any biologist hiking in the dark in this area during hunting season when bears are in there looking for elk gut piles. However, poor judgment and foolhardy behavior are not crimes.”
Servheen said he doesn’t think hunters or others will be more likely to illegally shoot grizzlies and claim self-defense after the bears are removed from the endangered species list this summer, at which point penalties will be lower. But this sort of incident does highlight the importance of state efforts to educate people about avoiding conflicts with grizzlies as they expand their range, he said.
“If mortality starts to skyrocket because of these kinds of conflicts, and these kinds of kills, then it will look very bad for them,” Servheen said of state officials. “I have confidence they’re not going to shrug off this kind of thing.”
The killing of bear No. 211 was not made public until April 2016, when the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department announced it in a statement. Although the shooting took place outside of Yellowstone, that delay troubled park officials, who also were not promptly informed, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. The grizzlies’ range in the area spans 12 million acres that are monitored by various agencies, and keeping the bears’ population stable depends on open channels of communication, he said.
“While we support delisting, we need to make sure that we all have a good understanding of state management actions and what will happen surrounding Yellowstone National Park in a post-delisting world,” said Wenk, who called grizzlies “critical” to Yellowstone’s mission. “They have to know what’s going on in Yellowstone, and we have to know what’s going on outside of Yellowstone.”