Federal and state wildlife officials are investigating an incident involving a grizzly bear that was found dead along a remote stretch of Wyoming highway just 14 miles from the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park. According to a resident of nearby Cody, who saw the dead bear about 30 feet off the road on the morning of Monday, April 2, it was initially discovered and reported by an employee of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. An extensive investigation is still ongoing, but agents with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) are treating the incident as a “possible illegal killing,” local media outlet Cowboy State Daily reports.

Cody-based wildlife photographer Amy Gerber was one of the first people—aside from Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel—to observe the scene on the morning of April 2. “I drive that road every single day to go out and do nature photography near the East Gate,” Gerber tells Field & Stream. “When I pulled up, the Game and Fish guys were there. They wanted to know if I’d seen anything suspicious in the morning. They were combing the hillside behind the bear looking for evidence.”

Public Lands & Waters photo
Agents treated the hillside where the bear was found dead like a crime scene, a local photographer tells F&S.

Rumors about the federally-protected animal’s demise have been circulating since Monday morning. Some residents claim the bear was hit by a car. But Gerber says that Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) employees told her otherwise. “When I talked to them I said: ‘This bear wasn’t hit by a car was it?'” she says. “Their answer to that was no. I said: ‘Was the bear shot?’ And the answer was yes.”

WGFD Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Thompson told Field & Stream that his department is yielding to the feds on the matter. “I can’t say very much. I can confirm that this occurred,” says Thompson. “I can’t add anymore that would impact an ongoing Federal investigation.” When reached for further comment via text message, USFWS Senior Public Affairs Specialist Joe Szuszwalak said “there is an open and active investigation into this incident by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to the nature of ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment at this time.”

The area near the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park—comprised mainly of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management property—is home to one of the most robust grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48. Last year, two college wrestlers made national headlines when they survived a grizzly bear attack in the same general area.

Wyoming’s grizzlies are still listed under the Endangered Species Act, but there have been multiple attempts to remove them from federal protection and return management responsibilities to the state in recent years. The unlawful killing of a grizzly bear in the Lower 48 carries a penalty of up to $50,000 in fines and one year in prison.

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“At this point, do we know for sure that it was a poaching incident? To me all indications are, yes,” says Gerber. “I don’t think this was a case of someone mistaking a grizzly for a black bear. This bear was huge—I’m guessing at least 500 pounds. My opinion is that they shot it from right there on the road. It might be six months to a year before we have an answer. I just hope that the person is held responsible for what they’ve done.”