Published April 27, 2016
YELLOWSTONE PARK – Yellowstone National Park’s most famous grizzly bear is dead. Five months after being illegally shot by a hunter, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) released the information as FWS’s public comment period on its proposed rule to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is coming to a close. Known to bear biologists as Bear 211, and to millions of tourists as “Scarface,” the 25-year-old grizzly was killed last November in the Little Trail Creek drainage just north of the Park on the Gallatin National Forest.
“I don’t know if it was self-defense or mistaken identity,” says Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for MFWP. “The USFWS is leading the investigation and until that is done they are not releasing the name of the hunter,” he affirms.
In the wake of the belated announcement, an outpouring of anti-Native sentiment has been posited on local media sites and blogs, with posters suggesting that a Native hunter shot the patriarch grizzly, amidst accusations that Natives wantonly kill “bison, elk, bighorn and bald eagles” north of Yellowstone during the buffalo and elk seasons. Tribal members from the Nez Perce, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation participate in those hunts through existent treaty rights.
“I think it’s safe to say that’s inaccurate information that it was a tribal hunter,” was Aasheim’s response to the allegations about Scarface’s killer, and adds that he does not know “of any instances where elk or bison were just shot and left by tribal members,” contrary to assertions made on the Internet and in the local community of Gardiner, Montana. Tensions arising from the tribal buffalo and elk subsistence hunts, in combination with massed tribal opposition to the federal delisting and subsequent state operated trophy hunts of the grizzly, is thought to be behind the attempt to smear Native people in the killing of the iconic grizzly.
“The grizzly bear is very sacred to us,” says Johnny Arlee, a nationally respected elder and traditional leader of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. “It’s a good thing that the CSKT council is backing other tribes in protecting the grizzly bear. They know that our animals are precious. As Native people we have faith in the animal world. Grizzlies are very powerful.”
The CSKT is a member of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), one of the first tribal bodies to pass a resolution opposing the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear. Among the core objections cited by the RMTLC is the “threat to the sovereignty and spiritual rights of Tribal Nations” posed by delisting, and FWS’s failure to meet the standard of “meaningful consultation” required by Executive Order 13175 on the fate of the bear considered sacred by tribes from Canada to the Rio Grande.
“Our ceremonies have always been important. Only a medicine man has the right to keep sacred things associated with the grizzly. The grizzly’s spirit has its own way of healing; the spirits of other animals have different ways. A spiritual gift from a grizzly can be used in a good or bad way. You can use that gift to help people, or to be greedy, and hurt others with that power. The more you help, the more knowledge you gain from doctoring people,” explains Johnny Arlee.
Internationally, the Salish elder’s reputation grew from his role in Robert Redford’s 1972 western Jeremiah Johnson, and in the proceeding years he has been featured in documentaries, authored books on Salish culture, and recorded multiple CDs. Throughout, he has been a fulcrum of traditional life on the Flathead Reservation, and continues to have a central role in the annual Arlee powwow, and shares his knowledge with students at Salish Kootenai College.
“Grizzly bears were here before the human beings and we respect them that way. We don’t play with them. It is an honor to have a grizzly bear name. It is powerful, and you have to earn that name,” he says. “This idea of trophy hunting grizzly bears is really dumb. It’s the complete opposite of our culture. If it was turned around the other way and the trophy hunters were hunted, there would be a different thought.”
The killing of Scarface just over the boundary of Yellowstone National Park provides a glimpse into what awaits the grizzly bear if it loses ESA protections and the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho initiate their long-planned trophy hunts. “Scarface and the other 61 grizzlies in 2015 were killed while supposedly protected under the ESA. Couple that with the states’ plans post-delisting and the bloodbath we’ve predicted all along will ensue beyond the boundaries of the Parks and what the Feds have identified as the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA),” warns GOAL Tribal Coalition Co-founder, R. Bear Stands Last. FWS’s Chris Servheen recently admitted that grizzlies “outside the DMA” have “a limited future.”
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, Dan Wenk, has expressed concerns about trophy hunts in proximity to the Parks, but denied that he has advocated for a buffer zone. “If grizzly bears are delisted, and if there is hunting in the surrounding states, we do care,” clarifies Wenk. “We want to be involved in where the hunts will take place, when they’ll take place, and we would like to see them concentrate the hunts away from the Park boundary. But I have never used the term ‘buffer zone.” Wenk relayed that it was, “three to four weeks ago that we got some information that Scarface had been killed.” The Yellowstone Superintendent didn’t know why it took so long for the Park to be notified of the identity of the bear, given that Scarface was collared. “I don’t believe that’s true,” Wenk counters. “There was a tag on the bear. I don’t know that there was a collar. When we first knew about it, I think they called to ask if the number on the tag was a bear that we were familiar with,” he says.
“He was wearing a collar,” confirms Sam Sheppard, MFWP Supervisor for Region 3 where Scarface was killed. “But he was identified as Bear 211 by his tag. I can’t give the exact date because of the USFWS investigation, but it was November,” Sheppard asserts. Captured 17 times by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) since 1993, Scarface was one of FWS’s best-known and most studied grizzly bears, which has left many questioning why it took five months for the Service to approve the release of the bear’s identity.
“Informing the public that 211, Scarface, had been shot in the direct aftermath would not have hindered FWS’s investigation at all. What it would have hindered is the Feds’ and states’ delisting and trophy hunting narrative. Telling millions of people who have seen Yellowstone’s most famous grizzly that the bear had been killed by a hunter would have changed the dynamic and inspired more opposition and negative public comment. It would have contributed to derailing Servheen’s and Director Ashe’s agenda,” suggests Bear Stands Last.
Servheen, FWS’s retiring “Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator,” was, according to Bear Trust International, “instrumental” in its creation. Bear Trust International’s founder and chairman, AC Smid, is a prominent trophy hunter, and the group actively promotes the delisting and trophy hunting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear. Among the organization’s partners is Safari Club International, and its corporate sponsors include ExxonMobil and BP.
“My message to trophy hunters who want to kill this sacred being on our sacred lands is this: go home,” says Johnny Arlee. “It’s crazy to have these rich white people coming here to kill, kill, kill and to brag about killing a grizzly bear. Human beings are crazy. There has got to be a change in our hearts,” concludes the Salish elder.