Of all the animals that once inhabited the great American West, none was regarded with more respect and fear than the grizzly bear. That was surely owing to his ferocious disposition and huge size, the bears often weighing in between 500 and 1,000 pounds.
Explorers Lewis and Clark, who were apparently the first to observe and write about grizzlies, tell of an encounter in the Rocky Mountains. Their party shot one grizzly ten times, four of the bullets going through the lungs and two through the heart. Even so, the bear lived for 20 minutes, during which time he swam half a mule up a river.
It was stories like that, told around campfires, that enlarged the grizzly’s reputation. Mountain men and fur trappers, working in the wildest parts of the West, were the ones most likely to have an unpleasant confrontation with these bears.
Indeed, the history of the fur trade contains plenty of tales about trappers who were killed or crippled when they accidentally crossed paths with a grizzly. Hugh Glass, for example, was grabbed and badly mauled on the Grand River in South Dakota. His fellow hunters thought he could not survive, so they took his rifle and left him in his blankets to die. but he came to, saw that he had been abandoned, and crawled on his hands and knees 100 miles to Fort Kiowa.
If a man was attacked, the best escape was to head for the closest pine or spruce, because grizzlies cannot climb trees. The reason is they have huge claws, three inches or longer, that prevent them from getting a hold on the trunk. Other physical traits that set the grizzly apart from other bears are his dished face and a pronounced shoulder hump.
Although grizzles seemed to prefer the high mountain country, in the old days they often descended to the lowlands. Wagon travelers heading toward the Southwest speak of finding them far out on the plains.
Naturalist J.H. Clark was in the mountains around Silver City in the 1850s studying and collecting specimens of the grizzly for the U.S. National Museum. In his notebook he wrote: “The grizzly was found abundant in all the mountainous regions traversed west of the Rio Grande. Late in the summer they leave the mountains for the open prairie, it is said by frontiersmen, searching for plants which they much relish.”
The grizzly was never as numerous in the Southwest as he was in the northern Rockies and California. But at one time he was fairly common in the main ranges of New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado. Several colonies lived in the remote mountains of Chihuahua, and a few grizzlies resided in the Davis Mountains of west Texas, probably the only ones that ever lived in that state.
Since this bear was regarded by man with about the same affection he held for the rattlesnake, it is not surprising that all-out war was waged up on the lordly grizzly. There was no one, it seemed, who was willing to come to his defense.
Professional bear hunters, or sportsmen, took a heavy toll — men like New Mexico’s Ben Lilly and Montague Stevens. They both tracked and slew grizzlies throughout the Black Range and Mogollon Mountains.
The late J. Frank Dobie wrote a book on Ben Lilly’s hunting exploits. Stevens told his own story in a lively volume called Meet Mr. Grizzly. Reading about such men, one learns that they looked upon the killing of bears as a public service. But, of course, they were also lured by the danger and the thrill of the chase.
Cattlemen, sheep raisers and homesteaders were all loud in their call for extermination of the grizzly. Wolves and prairie dogs were also placed on the death list. Congress responded and in 1914 set up a special agency under the Department of Agriculture to eradicate these “varmints.”
Over the next few years government hunters, ranchers and bounty hunters sent the grizzly population plummeting. By 1918 only 60 grizzlies were thought to remain in the Southwest. But still the war went on.
By 1928 the U.S. Forest Service estimated the grizzlies at a total of 28 in the national forests of the region. Eight years later the number was down to 10. After the early 1940s no others were seen in New Mexico or Arizona and they were thought to be extinct in both states. The last grizzly in southern Colorado was killed in 1979 after it had attacked and seriously mauled a wilderness guide and outfitter.
Much of the history and lore of this fascinating animal was collected in a volume by David E. Brown, The Grizzly in the Southwest, Documentary of Extinction. The author was a supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and anyone interested in wildlife will find his book a delight.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.