To some Scarface is a great movie, but to those who call Yellowstone the home of their heart, they know the name refers to the biggest, baddest bear of them all.
Scarface – also known as bear 211 – has had a few run-ins with the law in his time, but he’s actually one of the more mellow and patient animals you’ll find in this vast wilderness.
His name stems from his countless back-country fights with other bears that have led to his scarred face, missing ear and general king-of-the-wilderness look.
Brilliant photographer Sandi Sisti has done a fantastic job telling the story of this magnificent bear, but for me, it’s more of a personal story.
As I shared with Planet Jackson Hole reporter Teresa Griswold, the first grizzly I ever saw in Yellowstone was when I was seven.
Having driven all across the American southwest with my family, we found ourselves in the world’s first national park and, like so many tourists, we wanted to find wildlife.
When we saw a car parked in a pull-off with its occupants scanning Antelope Valley, near Mt. Washburn, we knew we had to investigate.
Frank Butler and his late wife kindly informed us that they were looking for grizzlies and, if we were willing to be patient, they’d likely find one to show us through their scope.
Waited we did – through Yellowstone’s famous, ever changing weather. Hail. Rain. Sun.
None of it bothered me. I wanted to see a bear and, after a few hours, we were rewarded.
A scared black bear ran out of the forest below followed closely by a grizzly sow with two cubs.
Based on research and many, many conversations, I now know one of those cubs to have been Scarface.
I didn’t see the bear again until my family returned to the park for the third time when I was 13.
Scarface – who at the time was known as the Chittenden bear – was on his usual beat, wandering the meadows of Mt. Washburn.
Thrilled to see my first up-close grizzly, I watched to my dismay as a tourist wandered up the meadow and to within a few feet of the bear. The crowd yelled for him to return, but with remarkable arrogance, he gave us the finger and proceeded to throw pebbles at Scarface to get him to look-up for a flash-photo on his point-and-shoot.
The bear gave the idiot a stare that said ‘I could kill you, must you’re not worthy of my energy’ and resumed eating.
One onlooker left to find a ranger and pleaded with the crowd to not let the tourist leave the scene. And when the tourist returned to the road, I precociously stuck by his car, forcing him to wait until rangers arrived to, rightly, fine the man.
It was a surreal experience, but it was also a seminal moment in my life.
The individual who went to find the ranger? He was impressed that I helped him take a stand for Scarface and, noticing my family’s BC license plate on our car, asked if I’d be willing to take a stand for another bear that lived in my home province: the spirit bear.
Obviously, the rest is history, but my journey to protect the spirit bear started on
Dunraven pass with my old friend Scarface.
Since that day, I’ve been lucky enough to see the old patriarch almost every year.
Sometimes Scarface is ambling across the road in front of our car and sometimes he’s grazing on a far-off hillside.
I’ve seen him almost kill a black bear for getting too close to his carcass in Antelope Valley and I’ve seen him barely bat an eyelash at people who find themselves far too close to bear who, at his prime, weighed over 800 pounds.
The big bear, unfortunately, became the focus of Yellowstone Bear Management’s research, meaning he’s had to put up with nine collars. Though some believe he’s mangled himself trying to get them off, based on my extensive observation of him with and without a collar, I don’t believe this to be the case (something Sandi’s research corroborates).
Like many boars, he wanders.
But amazingly he never leaves the park and he always seems to find his way back to Mt. Washburn for the hot summer months. And though he’s lost weight and is getting cranky in his old age, I’ve never known Scarface to act aggressively toward people, even when he’s had the opportunity.
It was only fitting that when I came to the conclusion that it was time to wrap-up the spirit bear campaign, I came across Scarface in almost the same spot that I found him when I was 13, the day I learned about the Kermode.
As the crowds left the Scarface bear jam that night in 2012, I knew the sun was setting on the spirit bear campaign as darkness overtook the sky.
Three people – me, Jill and one of the best rangers Yellowstone has ever known – couldn’t bring ourselves to say goodnight to the mighty, old bruin.
For an hour, we sat on a rock watching Scarface graze.
We knew how to act around him, he knew how to act around us. As the ranger said: there are bears and then there is Scarface.
Turning 32 next week, I feel honoured to have known Yellowstone’s gentle giant for 24 years of my life, every year of his life.
I hope I get to see him this year and for many more years to come, because there is no one animal that has inspired me like Scarface nor any animal that has played such a profound role in defining the person I’ve become.
Here’s to you Scarface. Long may you roam.