Dead grizzly in Yellowstone River was decapitated, declawed, prompting federal investigation

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State and federal wildlife authorities are seeking who is responsible for cutting the head and paws off a grizzly bear that may have drowned and washed up on a gravel bar in the Yellowstone River north of Gardiner, Montana, in mid-June.

“It could have been a purposeful take, or half innocent not knowing about” the illegality, said Kevin Frey, FWP wildlife management specialist based in Bozeman. “There’s a lot of interest in having the skull or claws off them.”

Possession of grizzly bear parts, since it is protected under the Endangered Species Act, is a violation of federal law. That means investigators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are involved.

The 25-year-old male bear was a known Yellowstone National Park resident, having been captured and tagged with the number 394.

Gardiner sculptor George Bumann heard about the dead bear from a rafting guide and boated to the site to take measurements for his artwork. On June 11, he posted on his website a blog about the bear, along with several photos of its claws, paws and worn-down canine teeth, taking care to not identify where the bear was located.

“Some members of our small gateway community insist that this bear hunted bighorn sheep lambs on the slopes of Turkey Pen Peak, that he was the bruin filmed repeatedly in a ‘downtown’ Gardiner backyard each fall, or that he was one of the stars of the annual spring ‘drowned bison extractions’ that happened at Blacktail Ponds east of Mammoth Hot Springs or maybe he was the bear that we navigated around with our costumed children on dark Halloween nights along the back streets of candy land,” Bumann wrote on his Yellowstone Life blog. “Maybe he was all of these or maybe he was none of them. And this is where the special sauce of wild places is sweetest, the possibilities are infinite.”

He waited to post the blog until he heard that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had plans to remove the animal. Frey was notified about the bear on June 8. Because the bear was in the open near some houses, he thought it might be safe until they could figure out how to get an animal weighing about 400 pounds out of the middle of a runoff-swollen river.

“He was real thin from old age, but still had a lot of bulk,” Frey said, so moving the bear would be no easy task.

On June 10 the bear was still intact and Frey said the plan was to remove the bear the next day. Upon arrival, however, the FWP crew found that overnight someone had cut off the bear’s head and all four paws. The incident was first reported by Todd Wilkinson in the online publication Mountain Journal.

Based on what little bear managers know, grizzly bear 394 lived an interesting life. He was first trapped in 2001 by Wyoming Game and Fish as a 260-pound 5-year-old after killing domestic sheep in the Klondike Creek drainage on the Bridger Teton National Forest, according to Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone National Park’s lead bear biologist.

Bear 394 was relocated to Mormon Creek on the Shoshone National Forest and never ran into trouble with humans again, showing the effectiveness of conflict management. A new law, passed by the Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May, no longer allows Montana to relocate bears captured outside of a federal recovery zone, leaving it up to federal wildlife managers.

Grizzly bear 394 kept a low profile until being trapped in the Hayden Valley inside Yellowstone in 2011. By then the bruin was a 508-pound 15-year-old. At that time, the bear was captured during an investigation into a hiker fatality near Mary Mountain. Eventually another grizzly was implicated in the hiker’s death and euthanized.

The Hayden Valley, Mount Washburn and Lamar Valley were all within the big male’s home territory, Gunther said. Frey said the bruin was never on FWP’s radar for getting into trouble in Montana.

In 2016 during research operations, 394 was captured and weighed 591 pounds, above average for an old male bear.

“Six-hundred pounds is pretty average for adult male grizzlies,” Gunther said.

It is also “fairly common” for Yellowstone grizzlies to live into their 20s.

“The oldest bear we have recorded in the park was 31,” Gunther said. “The oldest that I have heard of in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) was 34.”

Bumann said when he examined the bear it looked as if it had recently been in a fight with another bear. It had a swollen right eye and a bloody head but no broken bones. The presence of relatively fresh blood made him think the bear hadn’t been dead long or that would have been washed off.

Frey said three grizzlies have been washed down the Yellowstone River and surfaced dead in Montana in recent years. He couldn’t find any bullet holes when he inspected the animal, and speculated it may have tried to swim the river at high water and got washed downstream.

“I think his death is more attributed to old age,” Frey said.

The mutilated remains of the grizzly were left in the river, so no necropsy was conducted.

“You wouldn’t know it was a bear now,” Frey said, as it has been scavenged and deteriorated back into the riverbed.

The bear is the 18th known grizzly bear fatality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this year. Three bears, two males and a female, drowned in the Heart Mountain Canal near Cody, Wyoming, after falling in and being unable to get out of the cement-sided ditch. The bears were discovered on May 20. Two other grizzlies were found dead this year, but are believed to have died last year.

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