The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis
) is North America’s most feared predator. While their fearsome reputation is somewhat overblown, few would argue just how intimidating these brown bears can be. Reaching weights of up to 800 lbs., able to run 35 mph in short bursts, and sporting some of the most terrifying claws in the animal kingdom, grizzlies are animals to be respected and left alone.
Grizzlies once roamed throughout the entire western United States and points south. These bears were able to thrive in different climates and geographies and ranged from the Great Plains, to the heavily forested mountains of the Rockies, and to the arid desert lands of the American Southwest and Mexico. But did they ever make Texas their home?
It is well-established that the smaller black bear (Ursus americanus
) resides in Texas. These bruins are plentiful in the Big Bend country of west Texas and are beginning to return to the heavily wooded eastern portion of the Lone Star State; an area from whence they were hunted to the point of extirpation in the early 1900s. Despite having been absent from the region for decades, black bear lore remains strong there. Old timers still recount the story of a two-year-old child that disappeared into the Big Thicket of southeast Texas. The child was missing for weeks until she was found alive and well, but in the company of a jealous she-bear. The story goes that once the child was rescued, the sow bear tracked her down and showed up at the residence of the child’s family on the edge of the forest. The bear tried to break into the home – presumably to retrieve her “cub” – and had to be killed by the little girl’s father. Another story, often related by the great bear hunter, Ben Lilly, was the tale of a male bruin that was shot and wounded by a farmer. The bear survived and harbored such hate for the farmer that he tormented him for years afterward. The vengeful bear is said to have killed the farmer’s calves and colts and destroyed his crops. There are many more fantastic tales about black bear encounters in the Lone Star State, but are there any about grizzlies? Sadly, no.
Well, that isn’t completely true. There is one.
In his book, Bear Stories
, Joe M. Evans tells the tale of the only grizzly bear ever officially documented in the Davis Mountains of west Texas. In fact, it is the only grizzly known to have ever been killed anywhere in the Lone Star State. There had been rumors that the great bears existed in limited numbers in the Davis Mountains years before, but by the 1890s – when the tale Evans tells took place - the suspected sub-species of grizzly that had been tentatively labeled texensis
seemed to be completely absent from the region. As it turned out, at least one individual remained.
In those days, Evans and his friends – avid bear hunters all - held an annual bruin hunt in the Davis Mountains. “We took our families,” Evans wrote. “Those were happy days.” It was on November 2, 1890 when the hunters discovered the carcass of a partially eaten cow in a gulch near the head of Limpia Creek in Jeff Davis County. Near the carcass, the hunters discovered a bed of pine straw ten feet long. Next to the nest, a bear track. A BIG bear track. The print was thirteen inches long and right at six inches wide. The group quickly realized this was no black bear. In fact, it seemed the bruin was one of exceptional size and strength…even for a grizzly.
The giant bear had dragged the cow for one hundred yards down the side of a mountain. “In doing so," former Texas Ranger A. J. Sowell said, “The grizzly hung her around a small tree, but…continued to pull until he broke the tree down and then went on with his load, breaking the horns off the cow when they would hang on rocks.” The thought of an animal strong enough to accomplish such a feat gave more than just the hunters pause. Of the thirty-five bear dogs present, only four had the sand to take up the trail of the big grizzly. The dogs followed the great bear’s scent for five miles before they finally cornered him in a stand of pines.
The first two hunters to arrive on the scene were John Means and C. O. Finley. The pair opened up on the enormous bear with all they had. Each man pumped five rifle slugs into the grizzly, which they estimated weighed at least one thousand pounds. The roars of the enraged, and now dying, grizzly echoed through the canyon, reaching the ears of the rest of the hunting party still a mile away. The massive grizzly did manage to take a small measure of revenge before expiring, killing one of the prized bear dogs with a single swipe of one of its huge, clawed paws. “He literally, broke the dog to pieces,” Evans wrote.
The hunters had the bear’s hide – which took four men to load onto a packhorse - tanned and mounted. Even after the head and legs were removed from the hide, it remained large enough to cover a double bed. The skull of the great bear was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where in 1918 a scientist assigned sub-species status to the bruin. An effort was made by Evans and his congressman to have the skull returned on loan to Texas in 1935. Evans wanted to display the skull as part of the Texas Centennial celebration. The Smithsonian officials declined the request. They felt the specimen was too rare to be displayed outside of the Washington D.C. museum.
Today, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department confirms that black bears have rebounded quite nicely in the Big Bend area since the peak of the bear hunting days of the late 1800s and early 1900s; however, no one has seen a grizzly there – or anywhere else in Texas – since Victorian times. Hopes that a grizzly had returned to the region were raised when unusually large bear tracks were found in the Guadalupe Mountains in 1931; however, no one ever saw the bruin responsible.
When reading of the demise of the only grizzly known to have ever stalked Texas soil, I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy. Joe Evans did not seem to feel the same way. He wrote in his book, “The killing of this grizzly was the climax of all our hunting experiences in the Davis Mountains.” No doubt, this quote will rub many the wrong way today, but try not to be too hard on Joe Davis and his hunting friends. It was a very different time.