Last July, a Yellowstone National Park visitor cruising the Grand Loop spotted a large grizzly plodding along the shoulder of the road near the Dunraven trailhead. The bear sported a radio collar around his neck, but it was the gnarled ear and large mottled scar on the right side of his face that were most noteworthy. These were the telltale markings of the 25-year-old male known to biologists as No. 211 and to everyone else as Scarface.
The Jackson resident subsequently posted a string of pictures of the sighting to the online public forum at Yellowstone.net, as well as an account of the "courteous pedestrian" behavior Scarface exhibited before wandering back into the woods. The photos joined a decades-rich body of images of this particular bear, whose celebrity status could arguably have given Smokey a run for his money.
Scarface was in many regards the ambassador for Yellowstone grizzlies among the public, an American counterpart in fame to Africa's Cecil the lion. Over his lengthy lifetime—close to the estimated 30-year maximum for his species—Scarface made regular appearances along park roads and nearby fields, occasionally passing between cars as tourists leaned out windows for a better look. He turned up in researchers' traps 17 times, the first in 1993 near Mount Washburn, and was frequently monitored via radio collar as he roamed from the east side of the Gallatins to the west side of the Absarokas, making him the most studied bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His life was not without incident, of course. Several posters at Yellowstone.net's forum recounted the story of a panicked family near Lost Lake spraying Scarface with bear spray while he was eating berries. But most days he was a stoic reminder of the grizzlies' presence in the park, Yellowstone's "Grand Old Man" as photographer Sandy Sisti put it on her blog.
"How Scarface obtained his many scars will always remain a mystery," Sisti wrote in spring 2014, "but the fascination with this iconic grizzly will continue throughout his lifetime. As happens each year as spring approaches, bear watchers anxiously await news that Scarface has made it through yet another winter. 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."
- cover photo courtesy of Adam Willoughby
Scarface didn't make it through the following winter, though. He was shot dead in late November 2015 in the Little Trail Creek drainage north of Gardiner. The public remained in the dark about Scarface's fate until Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed the elderly bear's death late this April. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the protections currently extended to grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act, is currently investigating the incident.
Scarface was just one of 61 bear mortalities around Yellowstone in 2015, but his stardom elevated the story to the pages of The Washington Post and TIME magazine. Then, on May 12, his death at the hands of an armed human took on a whole new level of significance when FWP released its proposed framework for a grizzly hunting season outside Yellowstone.
Montanans had anticipated such a proposal for months, ever since the revelation that state wildlife officials here and in Idaho and Wyoming were actively discussing public hunts with FWS Director Dan Ashe. It's fast become the most controversial and talked-about facet of the federal government's effort to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, and Scarface's demise gave delisting critics a face for their cause.
"You saw what happened with Cecil," says Sara Atiqtalik, the national coordinator for a tribal coalition committed to stopping the delisting push, in reference to the famous African lion killed by an American hunter. "Exactly the same thing is going to happen here."
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published on March 3 its draft delisting rule for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Director Ashe couched it as a "historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act." The rule hardly came as a surprise to those following the issue, but supporters and critics both greeted it as a signal to redouble their efforts and outreach.
The rule also confirmed an assertion made by Ashe in a leaked interagency letter from September 2015, specifically that 600 bears would be the population trigger below which all "discretionary mortality," or hunting and other human-caused deaths, would cease under state management. Conservation nonprofits like WildEarth Guardians countered the baseline was far too low for a species that last year alone suffered 61 known and probable mortalities—a roughly 6 percent decline given the current estimated population of roughly 700 grizzlies. That the figure remained unchanged despite these concerns only seemed to solidify beliefs that FWS leaders were intent on delisting.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim, it's actually the states, not the fed, that have been pushing for the change. Aasheim considers delisting both a nod of respect to the ESA and the best way to get a handle on an increasing number of bears. The agency has a responsibility "by law," he says, to manage the wildlife within its borders. As far as Aasheim's concerned, FWP has proven it can meet that responsibility.
- photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Over the past decade the agency has built an extensive network of partnerships in the Blackfoot Valley aimed at reducing conflicts between humans and grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and local residents have bought into those efforts. The agency is also taking a proactive approach to building tolerance for grizzlies in southwestern Montana ahead of delisting, Aasheim says. Through a joint initiative with several other government offices and nonprofits, FWP has helped create a part-time staff position in Bozeman dedicated entirely to grizzly bear education and outreach.
"It's time," Aasheim says of delisting. "We've done everything that's been asked of us. Let's go."
But if there's one aspect of the delisting debate Aasheim doesn't believe FWP was pushing for, it's hunting. When the agency released its draft hunting framework in May, the announcement stated officials expect Montana's allocation of huntable bears to be small—"less than 10 in most years and zero in some"—and stressed the regulations were designed to minimize harvest of female bears. Licenses would be awarded by draw and cost $150 for resident hunters and $1,000 for nonresidents. All this, Aasheim says, was done simply to meet the stipulations handed down by the Fish and Wildlife Service.