BOISE, Idaho — Grizzly bear No. 211 has been captured by scientists 17 times during his long life in and around Yellowstone National Park.
"Wherever we set traps, he seems to find them," said Kerry Gunther, the park's bear management program leader.
Born in 1990 during the midst of a grizzly bear baby boom, No. 211 witnessed the return of wolves, and has become one of the most recognizable bruins by park visitors who've dubbed him Scarface due to healed gashes from fights with other bears.
Scientists say genetic matches show he fathered at least three offspring during a 25-year span that saw the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population rise from about 300 to more than 750.
Now, scientists say it could be time to remove federal protections for the bears. Members of an Interagency Grizzly Bear subcommittee are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Jackson, Wyoming, where delisting will be one of the topics.
"We've talked about the idea of doing that and we all agree that the population is recovered," said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But there's no proposal that it be delisted."
No. 211 has spent much of his life within view of roads, thrilling wildlife watchers. Some have seen him fight other grizzlies or drive wolves away from carcasses.
The first capture of No. 211 happened in 1993 near Mount Washburn in the northeast part of the park. At 3 years old, he weighed an estimated 150 pounds.
Whether he's not smarter than the average bear, or perhaps, just considers a free meal of road-killed deer or elk inside a giant cylindrical bear trap worth being drugged, weighed and fitted with a new radio collar, isn't clear. But with a total of 17 captures, he's one of the most studied bears in what scientist say is one of the most studied bear populations on the planet.
"It's one of the longest ongoing research efforts on any large vertebrate," said Frank van Manen, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and team leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which puts out the bear traps.
"Every bear has a unique history and these records are a great example of how the life history of a bear progresses through time," he said in a follow-up email to The Associated Press. Combine bear No. 211 "with similar histories and genetics of hundreds of bears over more than four decades of data and one can start to understand the complex dynamics of this grizzly bear population."
All that information, scientists say, shows that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population has reached capacity for the amount of resources available. A decline in the survival of bear cubs that appears due to young bears being killed by large male grizzlies is one sign, scientists say.
"This happens in areas with high densities," Van Manen said.
Gunther said that as bears expand outward, they're running into human populations. About 80 to 85 percent of the annual grizzly bear deaths in the ecosystem are human related, Gunther said, with many of those being bears captured and euthanized due to conflicts with people or livestock.
"They're bumping up against the social human tolerance of where they can be," Gunther said.
No. 211 weighed 597 pounds when he was captured in 2001, the highest weight researchers recorded.
"In his prime, we saw a lot less of him," Gunther noted. "But when he was near a road, people and traffic didn't bother him. It was stolid indifference. He was king of the woods and he wasn't afraid of anything."
In subsequent captures, he has weighed less. Now near the end of what's generally considered a wild grizzly bear's lifespan, he weighed 338 pounds at his last capture on Aug. 31 near Mount Washburn.
"Recent records show his body mass and condition have declined," Van Manen said, "as we would expect for a bear of his age."
Gunther said No. 211 in recent years has spent more time feeding near roads, likely to avoid larger grizzlies that tend to stay away from park visitors that number in the millions each year.
Based on his condition, Gunther said he expects No. 211 to die over the winter or in the spring when food is scarce and he won't be able to compete with other grizzlies or wolves for carcasses from winterkill.
"He's been a symbol of remote wilderness, but he lives among 4 million visitors," Gunther said.