A famed 25-year-old Yellowstone grizzly bear was shot three times at close range with a .30 caliber rifle by an elk hunter in late 2015, according to documents recently released in a FOIA request.
Scarface, the name given by bear watchers in the park to bear No. 211, was killed in the Little Trail Creek drainage, near Gardiner, Montana, outside of the park the night of Nov. 18. The next day the hunter reported the encounter via Montana’s game violation tip line. Officers from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to investigate.
Prosecutors chose not to file charges against the man, whose name and place of residence were redacted from the document, citing a lack of evidence that the grizzly bear wasn’t killed in self-defense. Shooting a grizzly bear is a federal offense punishable by up to a $50,000 fine and a year in jail. The case was closed in July 2016, but details of the incident were never released.
According to the investigator’s report, the hunter was walking down the trail in the dark while wearing a headlamp when he came upon the bear.
“All of a sudden, I don’t know if I heard her or just looked, or somehow, she was just right (blank) there,” he told the investigators who recorded the conversation. “And close enough that she made noise, growled, and I saw her well enough, and that’s time to sling lead. It didn’t take too long to figure out what the hell was going on.”
The man’s hunting companion said he heard the shots at about 6:20 p.m. The hunter was carrying a .30-378 Weatherby rifle with a scope.
According to the report, the bear was angled toward the hunter when they met. That would explain a shot to the front right shoulder of the grizzly that penetrated into its vitals. Another shot entered just in front of the left rear leg and one hit the left front shoulder.
The hunter said he fired the rifle from his hip.
Two aspects of the encounter made the investigators somewhat suspicious. Although the shooter initially said he had left out no details, when the group arrived at the scene of the shooting the bear was in the creek. The investigators accused the men of trying to hide the bear.
That’s when the man said they had returned that night to “identify” the bear. When asked how the bear ended up in the creek, the man first said that’s where he fell when he shot him, but later changed that statement to say they stood the 338-pound bear up on a log to look at him and he fell backwards into the creek.
“We weren’t trying to, like I said, I, I’ll come out and tell you that I thought about just leaving him up there. But then, do we do the right thing, or do we keep it a secret, what the hell?” the hunter said.
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The men said no photos of the bear were taken.
The other discrepancy was that upon that first return trip the hunter and his companion did not walk up the trail to the bear, saying they didn’t want to disturb the crime scene, even though they moved the dead animal.
Bullets recovered from the dead bear’s carcass were analyzed by the bullet manufacturer’s ballistics expert who found the 150-grain projectiles were probably fired at a close distance.
When the hunter was asked why he hadn’t carried bear spray, a proven nonlethal means of protecting humans from bears, the man said he had been hunting the area since 2000 and had never seen a bear, although on occasion they had seen old bear tracks.
The Freedom of Information Act request was filed by Kat Brekken and Kelly Thompson. Brekken is the eco-education and tourism director at the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. Both women live in Gardiner.
“Scarface’s death could have been avoided with some basic common sense and known protocols in grizzly bear country,” Brekken said in a statement. “As a hunter, you receive oodles of information from the states that say that hiking alone, at night, quietly, in an area thick with bears and carrying only a gun and no bear pepper spray, is just asking for trouble.”
The hunter told the investigators he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“That’s it, she was there and, like I said, I’d do it, I’d do it right in front of you right now even if you were holding a camera,” he said.
“It is time for the states to require hunters, who are now the leading cause of grizzly bear mortalities in (the) Yellowstone (area), to carry and know how to use bear spray,” Thompson said. “Bear spray has been proven to work in over 90 percent of incidents involving close bear encounters.”
Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would begin the process to remove the Greater Yellowstone Area’s grizzly bears from protection of the Endangered Species Act. So far this year eight grizzlies are known to have died in the Yellowstone region. Three of those deaths — two in Wyoming and one in Montana — are under investigation.