The Last Grizzly

[Image: Aldo Leopold. Photo credit: US Forest Service, via Flickr.]
Did you know that once upon a time, there were grizzly bears in Texas?

The Last Grizzly

The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together...Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bears. It’s only a mountain now.” Aldo Leopold, 1949, A Sand County Almanac

Escudilla is the third highest mountain in Arizona at 10,912 feet; from its height you can see all the way to Flagstaff 100 miles to the west and into New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness to the east. The upper reaches of Escudilla would have been a grizzly paradise with its pristine, high-elevation meadows and lonely aspect. It was there in this ursine heaven that the last grizzly in Arizona killed itself in the 1930s. The bear—known as Old Bigfoot—tripped a rigged rifle that the government trapper had hidden in a booby-trapped cow carcass. It seemed an almost ignoble ending for a story that began so long before trappers and their rifles stepped onto the scene. No one realized it at the time—in fact, it took 15 or 20 years—but the bear that died on Escudilla that day was the last grizzly in Arizona. Leopold writes sadly of the mountain having lost its identity with the death of that bear, but he also writes of the lingering spirit of this great animal:
“Somehow it seems that the spirit of the bear is still there, prowling the huge meadows, lurking in the thick stands of aspen and spruce, wandering the steep slopes that looking down from is like looking out of the window of an airplane.” 
But no matter how it seems, the fact is that no grizzlies roam Escudilla today, and their absence leaves behind an edifice unadorned.

Leopold exalts the grizzly as a necessary aesthetic addition to nature’s edifice, an animal that is not like the cow in its utility, but that adds grandeur and majesty to what otherwise would be a useful—but unimpressive—construct. He also laments the lack of foresight that the federal government had in 1949, a lack not confined to bureaucrats, certainly, but an ability that most men of the period seemed incapable of exercising. What mattered then was the “now;” the “later” could wait—until it was too late.
“The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not know that spires might be as important as cows,” Leopold wrote. “He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.”
Bureaucrats were not the only ones with a problem seeing clearly into their crystal balls. “The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the sons of the pioneers,” Leopold observed. “They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but they strove with might and main to make an end to the frontier.”

The frontier. Back when scratching a living out of the land was simply life or death without choices for humans and animals alike, the grizzly roamed over most of the Southwest and northern Mexico, places that would become “The Frontier” to the intrepid westward-ho migrants bent on taming this vast territory. As frontier people arrived, they found the grizzly, a large carnivore that carried with it tales of human-like deviousness and grudge-bearing that persist today. Organized efforts to destroy the grizzly before it destroyed the new settlers or their livestock were immensely successful in the Southwest; by the early 20th century, grizzlies were rare or extirpated in many areas. 

But true to its reputation for tenacity and power, the grizzly lingered stubbornly at the brink, possibly into the late ‘70s, when the last known southwestern grizzly was killed in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains in 1979. She represented the final flickering remnant of what was once an “edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together” in the Southwest.

When those stars first sang together, no humans were around to hear their music. At that time, there were approximately 100,000 grizzly bears in what would become the lower 48 states, and they ranged everywhere west of the Mississippi and from central Mexico northward to Alaska. At the dawn of the 21st century, there are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 and those are confined to the northwestern states, in areas that represent less than 2 percent of the grizzly’s original range.

But for the humans coming south after crossing the Bering land bridge 12,000 years ago, grizzlies meant nature at its harshest and most beautiful, an adornment to the edifice that was all around them. Grizzlies roamed everywhere the new arrivals went, from the mountains of Colorado to the rolling elevations of Chihuahua in Mexico, to Escudilla in Arizona. The great bears merited respect and inspired totems and tales. All that changed for the grizzly with the first waves of new settlers in the early 19th century.

Grizzlies confused settlers from the beginning. Although one observant frontiersman and soldier, Lieutenant George Augustus Frederick Ruxton, noted in 1847 that there were two species of bear in northern Mexico, others did not see the issue so clearly. According to other sources, there were far more than only two species or types of bear in the Southwest. Some people made the mistake of dividing the two bear types into three: the grizzly, the black, and the cinnamon bear, when the cinnamon bear was really a black bear sporting a coat of a different color; black bear coat colors can range from blonde to black.

Because grizzlies show strong sexual dimorphism, with males being much larger than females, the skull and bone specimens museums received to assess species types could be very different and thus, misleading. Males in the lower 48 states weigh from 400 to 800 pounds, while females tip the scales between 250 and 400 pounds. 

The resulting differences in specimen sizes were so marked that C. Hart Merriam, taxonomist and chief of the USDA’s biological survey at the turn of the 20th century, went so far as to break up the grizzlies into 78 species and 12 subspecies. He assigned eight species to the Southwest, including “type specimen” texensis based on samples collected in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

Ruxton, however, had the benefit of extensive, real-life observation in the Southwest, and he documented two types of bear, “the common black or American bear, and the grizzly bear of the Rocky Mountains.” He described the grizzly as being a fearsome foe to Indians and white hunters alike, saying that although the grizzly avoided humans like other wild animals do, “when maddened by love or hunger, he not unfrequently charges at first sight of a foe.” 

Doubtless, this reputation preceded the grizzly as other settlers arrived, all too ready to combat this frightening predator when it challenged their ability to survive by threatening their lives or livelihoods.

And combat did ensue. By the time Ruxton wrote his account, grizzlies had already started to disappear. Dick Wootton, a bear hunter who also understood his bears, recorded that grizzlies were beginning to become scarce by the mid 19th century in the Raton Mountains of northeastern New Mexico, where they had once been abundant. Before the end of the century, the grizzly would be gone from much of its original territory.

In the beginning of the westward movement, grizzlies could be found primarily in places that offered its favored habitat: wooded areas interspersed with plenty of meadows and other grassy areas for foraging. The forest serves as cover for them, and montane conifer forests found at high elevations throughout the Southwest provided optimal grizzly cover. These largest North American omnivores seemingly would eat almost anything, from grass to insects to berries to squirrels. They required large ranges in order to eat throughout the season and exploit the different habitats with season-specific food resources. The grizzly lives alone, except to mate, and can survive up to 30 years or more. 

Here, already in the west, was a voracious, omnivorous animal, capable of killing almost anything for food and exploiting seasonal habitats, and requiring a lot of territory to subsist. When westward-bound settlers arrived, they found their direct competition waiting; after all, these people, too, were omnivorous and voracious, and would grow to need acres of land for their sheep, cattle, and crops. The players were in place and the stage set for a clash of two titans.

The stories—both tall and true—that the grizzly inspired provided the backdrop for the battle. Ruxton, in 1847, recorded that a grizzly bear, unless it is killed, will administer “a hug at close quarters (that) is anything but a pleasant embrace, his strong hooked claws stripping the flesh from the bones as easily as a cook peels an onion.” He added that trappers delighted in telling newcomers bloody grizzly tales to discourage them from ever attacking a grizzly; but their stories may have had the real effect of instilling fear, fear that led to the desire to rid the world of these monsters entirely.

Ruxton told a true tale of a mountain trapper named Hugh Glass. A grizzly attacked Glass and mauled him so severely that Glass’s partner abandoned him, thinking he would die. Glass did not die, however, and tracked down his former partner to take his vengeance. Another chronicle relates the death of a bear hunter, Richard Wilson, who shot a grizzly and had his face torn away in an ambush by the wounded animal he was trying to track. The hunter was found face down in a pond, dead. 

Such tales of the damage grizzlies can do did not help their reputation. There were some who understood the grizzly better than others. Dick Wootton, the 19th-century bear hunter, stated that his “experience has been that the bear will always sacrifice his reputation for courage, to avoid a conflict with a hunter, provided the hunter makes no hostile demonstration”; however, the “one thing a ‘grizzly’ resents very promptly and being shot at or threatened with a gun.” There are plenty of tales of hunters who shot a grizzly and, while tracking the wounded animal, were attacked by ambush and maimed or killed.

Such tales help shape the attitudes of new arrivals into competitive antagonism. But attitudes toward bears—especially grizzlies—appeared to have a cultural basis, too. In Mexico, the attitude toward the grizzly appeared to be interested and enthusiastic, rather than adversarial. As grizzly chronicler David E. Brown writes of one account of a Mexican grizzly hunt, “The joy and excitement of the hunt is apparent in Bailon’s account, as is his appreciation of the grizzly. His celebrations, the employment of the guides, and the interest in the bear...illustrates the potential value of the grizzly to the Mexican people. There are no references to saving cows and doing good by killing the bear. One can only wonder what might have been the outcome if such an attitude had prevailed in the Southwest generally, and if effective hunting regulations had allowed such interests to continue and develop.” 

To hunters and ranchers alike, grizzly meant enemy. For bears, the real danger may have been something less than obvious—sheep. These unassuming animals can take partial burden of responsibility for the loss of so many bears in Texas and the Southwest. Sheep ranchers were especially protective of their flocks and had strong negative attitudes toward predators. During the period of the most intense sheep farming, from about 1885 to 1905, the numbers of sheep grazing increased along with the number of homesteaders and settlers, and during this 20-year period, the Southwest lost most of its grizzlies.

The federal government also helped on behalf of ranchers, using poison to control predators indiscriminately, although in some places—like West Texas—the target was really the wolf. The strychnine-laced bait worked not only on wolves, but on any animal that ate it, and the use of government-approved poison bait is another culprit in the decline of the grizzly and other carnivores in the Southwest.

But sheep and poison don’t get the blame entirely. Hunting—for sport or money—also claims some of the burden for the disappearance of the Southwest’s biggest predator. Mexico was not the only place bear hunts found followers. Some men made it their life’s work to seek and destroy as many bears as they could, and perhaps no one person had a greater hand in the bears’ demise as did Ben Lilly, the archetypal southwestern grizzly hunter. Although he did not kill every grizzly that died at the end of a hunter’s knife or gun, he fired ambition in other hunters and did manage to take out a great many bears himself.

Ben Lilly was born in 1856 and grew to attain status as the greatest bear hunter of all time. His attachment to killing bears was so strong that the U.S. government fired him from his job as a mountain lion killer because he spent too much time hunting bears instead. Lilly (pictured left, with some of his dogs) worked in service of the U.S. government, he hunted for his own pleasure, and he even served briefly as chief huntsman for Teddy Roosevelt on a famed Louisiana bear hunting expedition. He, like the Congressmen and bureaucrats who were his contemporaries, lacked the foresight that Aldo Leopold lamented. “I cannot be happy trying to grasp the future,” Lilly once said.

The Great Hunter Lilly began his work for the government in the Southwest when he was 55, receiving money to kill large predators, including black bear, panther, wolves—and grizzlies. His first bounty hunt took him to the Animas Mountains of New Mexico; there, in his first paid foray, he bagged 13 mountain lions, “some nice grizzlies”, and 12 bears, the latter of which must have been black bears distinguished from the “nice grizzlies.” In one week in eastern Arizona, he killed six bears. According to his estimates, he collected almost 50 bears a year.

Lilly had a tenacity that matched the grizzly’s. He would track a bear for days, even legendarily following one grizzly through three states and two countries (the United States and Mexico) before finally killing it. He took pride in his stubbornness, writing to Dr. J. B. Drake in 1928 that:
“... no other man will work as close as I have worked. I have worked where no water was to be had for 76 hours....I have stayed in snow from 3 to 12 feet deep for three weeks at a time...I have followed a big grizzly for three days at a time, snow from 3 to 12 feet deep, never had a coat on, I killed him, and then eat his meat....I have killed the largest and best tribes of animals. I have hunted them so close that it would take longer for 100 of them to accumulate again than it took me to kill 1000.” 
Certainly, for all his legend and status as a great hunter, for the bears, one Ben Lilly was enough.

Lilly killed a lot of bears, amongst them grizzlies, but he never killed a grizzly in Texas. He could boast of having killed so many black bears in and near the Big Thicket that by the time he left East Texas behind in 1906, he estimated that there were only about 15 bears left in the region. But not even Ben Lilly could find a grizzly in Texas. The reason may have been that there were none, especially by 1906.

Any grizzly living in Texas would probably have roamed the Trans-Pecos region of the state, an area defined by the Pecos River on the east and the state borders to the north, south, and west. There is only one authenticated record of a grizzly in Texas. This large bear (estimated weight 1100 pounds, which would have been simply gigantic for a grizzly outside of Alaska) met his death at the hands of two hunters in October 1890. C. O. Finley and John Z. Means and their dogs picked up the trail of the bear near the head of Limpia Creek (about 15 miles southwest of present-day McDonald Observatory). They had been tracking the big male because it had killed and eaten most of a cow. 

When the dogs picked up the trail, of the 52 hounds baying and barking, only a few would follow the grizzly’s scent. After running five miles over some of the roughest country in Texas, the dogs stopped the bear, which turned on them and killed one before the hunters arrived and shot it. The animal was so large that it took four men to lift the skin—with the head and feet still attached—onto the horse to get back to camp. This bear may well have been Texas’ last grizzly.

It is, at any rate, Texas’ only confirmed grizzly. Vernon Bailey (right), who completed an extensive biological survey of Texas in 1905, reported that this record is the only authentic grizzly account from Texas. This grizzly became the “type specimen” that Merriam identified as being of the texensis race. Some have asserted that grizzlies were once abundant in the Davis Mountains of the Trans-Pecos region—the same area where the confirmed grizzly kill occurred—but mid-18th century observers record no sightings of grizzlies in Texas

The Davis Mountains and the Guadalupes (where today’s Guadalupe National Park is located, just south of Carlsbad, New Mexico) are the only areas of Texas that have the kind of habitat grizzlies love—conifer forest interspersed with highland meadows for foraging. It may be that grizzlies were sighted and killed—more than indicated by Bailey’s single account—but hunters often failed to identify bears or distinguish species, so elucidating exact numbers is not possible.

But some reports still tantalize. Bailey, while sticking with his assessment that the grizzly was not common to West Texas, did report that in 1931, he saw tracks he thought must have been made by a grizzly at the head of a canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains. He also reported, in 1905, the story of Bud Kimble, a bear hunter from the Big Thicket who said the he and another hunter, John Moss, had killed a grizzly on a ridge in what is now Big Bend National Park, in the “elbow” of West Texas. Kimble said the bear, killed in 1902 or 1903, was indeed grizzled, with that characteristic silver-tipped hair, and he asserted that the animal was probably a local.

Even more intriguing is that a partial grizzly skull washed out on the banks of the Red River in North Texas, hundreds of miles from the Davis Mountains, although this specimen has disappeared. In spite of these teasers, the general consensus appears to be that, because of its preference for the high country, the grizzly did not spend a lot of time in Texas, which boasts very little of the high-country meadows and conifer stands beloved of the grizzly. In all probability, any grizzlies living in Texas had disappeared by 1905.

The grizzly’s remaining southwestern relative, the black bear, is another story. If the grizzly ever lived in Texas, it is highly unlikely the great bear will make a comeback, either in the Lone Star State or the rest of the Southwest. The original grizzly populations were separated by great distances, and the established populations were relatively small. These widely separated grizzly populations suffered greatly from human interference in the 19th century, and the possibility that they could be resurrected was—and remains—remote. The already-isolated populations became more isolated because of human activity until the populations disappeared entirely; their re-establishment is unlikely.

The black bear is different. It benefited from the different attitudes in Mexico, where bears weren’t perceived with such a powerful competitive antagonism. Even when black bears were mercilessly persecuted north of the border, they managed to flourish across the Rio Grande in the mountains of northern Mexico. Thus, when the persecution waned and the population had the chance, the black bear took off for the north again, beginning a historic recolonization of its original Texas homeland in the Trans-Pecos. Texas became home again to the black bear.

Bailey, Vernon. 1905. Biological Survey of Texas. USDA Biological Survey, No. 25. Washington Gov’t Printing Office.
Brown, David E. 1985. The Grizzly in the Southwest: Documentary of an Extinction. Universityof Oklahoma Press: OK.
Brown, David E. and Murray, John A. 1988. The Last Grizzly and Other Southwestern Bear Stories. University of Arizona Press: Tucson.
Dobie, J. Frank. 1950. The Ben Lilly Legend. UT Press: Austin.
Doughty, Robin W. 1983. Wildlife and Man in Texas: Environmental Change and Conservation. A&M U Press: College Station.
Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. New York 1949.
Onorato, David P. and Hellgren, Eric C. 2001. Black Bear at the Border: Natural Recolonization of the Trans-Pecos. In Large Mammal Restoration: Ecological and Sociological Challenges in the 21st Century. Maehr, David S., Noss, Reed F., and Larkin, Jeffery L., Eds. Island Press: WashingtonD.C.
Ruxton, George Frederick Augustus. 1915. Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky MountainsNew York.
Schmidly, David J. 2002. Texas Natural History: A Century of Change. LubbockTX.
A Summary of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. 1993. US Government Printing Office 1993-777-490/85085.
The Mammals of Texas Online Edition. Parks and Wildlife Department.
USDA. Biological Data and Habitat Requirements, Wildlife Species: Ursus arctos. Online documentUSDA Forest Service Online Database.

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