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A Grizzly-Sized Hole In The Landscape Of Yellowstone


Scarface in the river, Yellowstone National Park/Deby Dixon

Scarface, down by the Lamar River/Deby Dixon

There was a large grizzly bear that roamed Yellowstone National Park, purposeful in his long stride. His profile distinct, due to the indentation of the collar he normally wore, his thin neck and long nose, and a mangled right ear and scars on his face from a battle.

Every spring this bear would appear in Lamar Valley, walking beside the Lamar River, stopping to glance down at swollen water that was rushing by, as if looking for a bridge to cross, before moving on. He covered a lot of ground in a very short period of time and we never knew where Scarface was going. But he did, often putting nose to air and finding a carcass miles away.

Bear No. 211, aka Scarface, was born in early 1990 and roamed Yellowstone and beyond, from the East Gallatin range to the West Absaroka mountains for nearly 26 years. In November 2015, Scarface was shot and killed just north of the park, near Gardiner, Montana. The circumstances of the shooting are under investigation.

An icon of Yellowstone, the most asked question every spring was, “Has Scarface been seen?”

This year was no exception, despite widely spread reports of the bear’s poor health, due to old age. At 25 years old last fall, No. 211 was skin and bones when he made his final visit to a bear trap for a free meal and a new collar, weighing in at only 335 pounds. Scarface had only 12 percent body fat at a time when most grizzlies were fattening up for their winter’s nap, and only two decent teeth, as the rest were worn to stubbles. That late in the season, no one expected Scarface to put on enough fat to survive the winter, let alone the spring.

On September 15, 2015, shortly after Scarface visited the trap, Yellowstone’s bear manager, Kerry Gunther, wrote in an email that the bear’s condition was 1 on a scale of 1 to 5. One, meaning that he was emaciated in appearance. “So, this is likely his last full summer in YNP, even if he makes it through hibernation I suspect that he won't live past next spring,” Gunther wrote.

Scarface in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park/Deby Dixon

Scarface at home in the Lamar Valley/Deby Dixon

Gunther went on to say that the biologists seriously considered not collaring the bear again, but ultimately decided that after following him for so many years during his life, his cause of death would be important demographic data to have. Scarface was collared 10 times in 25 years, beginning when he was 3 years old and only weighed 140 pounds. At 11 years of age, the bear weighed a robust 597 pounds, his greatest recorded weight.

But Scarface was exceptional in many ways, and at the age of 25 had beat the odds of grizzly bear survival many times. According to Gunther, less than 5 percent of male cubs survive to be 25. Most male bears that reach maturity, at 5 years old, only live on to the average age of 11. Cub survival rate for grizzly bears is only about half.

To us, the visitors, wildlife watchers and photographers who love Yellowstone, Scarface was so much more than the stats on grizzly bears. He gave triple duty, as a research bear, a contributor to a healthy, intact eco-system, and in his patience with humans.

During my first spring in Yellowstone, when people began asking about Scarface, I had no idea who he was. But, I began to anticipate my first view of the bear like a child might long for an ice cream cone on a hot summer day at a carnival.

And, then, one day, I was driving towards the Yellowstone Bridge and a big grizzly bear appeared on the hill to the north, making his way towards the road. It was my first close encounter with a bear and I just stopped to watch as he barely hesitated before crossing the road near my front bumper. Oh, how I wanted to open the car door and get a photo, but he was a bear, a big one, and a grizzly, and the last thing I wanted to do was cause him problems. So, as he crossed in front of me I took photos through the windshield, because some were better than none. He barely glanced at me as he passed by, and then he went down the hill and was quickly gone.

There is nothing like seeing a famous Yellowstone animal for the first time, and my heart was racing with excitement, my cheeks flushed, and I could hardly contain my excitement, despite my preference for wolves over bears.

This is what happens in Yellowstone, when an animal’s story becomes well-known - they are given a name, or perhaps they have a number, and are easily recognizable - and everyone wants a chance to see that animal. There was bull elk No. 10 and wolf No. 06, and so many others that are now gone, but that became famous during their life because they were often seen by visitors. These well-known animals become ambassadors for their species, and while people get to know them through the stories and photos that they see on social media, seeing them for themselves means so much more. Seeing a famous animal is a thrill that is lived out for so many who visit the park.

One of my favorite things to do, when at a Scarface sighting, was to go over to the young kids, particularly boys, and ask them if they knew that they were seeing Scarface. They would turn and look at me with a mixture of excitement and hesitancy. How could I know which bear that was and were they really lucky enough to see one that everyone knows? And, I would tell them the story of Scarface and let them know that they were seeing the most famous bear in all of Yellowstone. Their excitement mounted as the sighting became so much more than just a grizzly bear walking across the landscape, it was a famous bear and they could go back to school and tell their friends all about what they had been fortunate enough to see.

In addition to his distinctive appearance, most notably the mangled ear and scars that were often irritated, which first appeared in 2000, Scarface was well-known for his mild manner and tolerance of humans. There is many a story of the bear walking right past humans, with no sign of aggression, going on past as if they weren't there. But, if you looked at photos later, you would see the bear’s eyes shift from person to person. He knew you were there, he just didn’t care. He had places to go and things to do.

Scarface, noticeably thin, Yellowstone National Park/Deby Dixon

Never put off by crowds, Scarface simply went on his way. Last summer he already was noticeably thin/Deby Dixon

While I witnessed Scarface walking through a crowd many times, and he did so at Grizzly Overlook the last time I ever saw him, he had a fan that knew him his entire life and saw him during every visit to Yellowstone. Scarface changed Simon Jackson’s life when he was only 13 years-old and became an advocate for the Spirit Bear. No one tells the story of Scarface’s tolerance for humans, better than Simon -

In Simon’s own words:

“The big memory in terms of impact is when I was 13. I obviously knew Scarface - this was before he had scars and we called him Chit (for Chittenden) - but it was the first time I'd seen him that year. The size and beauty really struck me.

My family and I watched for an hour and then a visitor walked up the hillside on the south side of Dunraven and came within feet of Scarface. He threw a pebble at him to look up, took a flash point-and-shoot photo and then came back down the hill. We all held our breath for the attack, but all Scarface did was look up, stare the guy down and then resumed eating. It was almost like he was trying to say, 'You're too dumb for words.'

It was an incredible moment and really emphasized how patient bears can be - and underscored how much we could have learned about co-existence from a bear like Scarface. Of course the impact of that moment lasted far longer. I ended up blocking the visitor from leaving until someone drove to the Ranger Station to get help and fine the culprit. An onlooker was so amazed, he asked if I'd be willing to help a bear that lived only in my home province. He saw my BC license plate and my passion for bears and thought I'd be interested in learning about plans to log the last habitat of the Spirit Bear. That was the spark that launched the two-decade campaign. Whatever I did to help save the Spirit Bear happened because of Scarface.

With the death of Scarface, Yellowstone does not feel the same. I look across Lamar Valley and the realization that I will never see him walk along the river, or chase (at a walk) the girls again, makes me sad. It is unfortunate that the bear died at the hands of man, when he was so good and so patient with humans all during his life. But, we can find some solace in that this event, whatever it was, happened when his time was nearly over.

The investigation into the death of Bear 211, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, continues and no details have been made available. Grizzly bear deaths, still under investigation are usually kept fully confidential until they are complete. But, due to the celebrity status of Scarface and the fact that people were reporting sightings of him this spring, a decision was made to at least let us know that we could not expect to see our favorite bear again, not ever.

Whatever the circumstances of his death, we prefer to remember Scarface in life, knowing that there are many of his children still roaming the eco-system and that because we knew this famous bear, we will speak for those who are still alive."

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We took our grandchildren to Yellowstone last summer. They saw and photographed Scarface in large part due to the eagle eyes and interest of long time followers of this Grizzly. They embraced our grandchildren, and we enbraced Scarface. It was an experience they will never forget.

A beautiful tribute. Thank you Deby and Simon.

Many dittos also to Deby and Simon. 

I loved this story but do not believe we should be showing a grizzly that close to humans since we are suppose to stay at least 100 yards from them. This story did not mention that so some people will see this and think it is OK to get that close.

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