© S. Bradley Stoner 2013.
WARNING: Graphic photo at end of story.
A Tale of Two Bears... or Was It Two Bear Tales?
Late in the morning of the late spring of 1981, I made a quick trip to my post office box in Victor, MT. The small lobby of the Post Office was abuzz. An animated man of about 50, a newcomer to the valley, approached me excitedly.
“Did you hear what happened?” he asked, gesturing wildly.
“Some guy got attacked by a bear last night! Bear came into his property and killed all his livestock... laid ‘em out one after the other. Then he tore up the bee hives he had... smashed ‘em all to smithereens. Well, when he heard the animals scream and the smashing of wood, he grabbed his gun and charged out in the dark. Ran smack dab into the bear about thirty feet from him, then the bear reared up an roared at him right before he charged. The guy unloaded on the bear, killing him. He skidded to a stop right in front of the guy! Boy I wish I coulda seen that. I heard that old bear had been tearin’ up the neighborhood for a week... almost killed a little kid up there... Would have if the kid’s mom hadn’t brought her in about a minute before the bear got there! Tore up some horses too... I heard they had to put down one of them, he was mangled so bad. Can you believe it... a vicious bear that close?” He paused to take a breath.
“So,” I asked, where did this all happen?”
“Right up on Bear Creek Trail... about six miles southwest of town. Boy, that’s something, isn’t it?”
“Bear Creek Trail? Know who the guy was?”
“Don’t know his name, but folks say he’s one tough son-of-a-bitch... pardon my French. I’d like to meet the guy.”
I stuck out my hand. “Well, say hello. I’m the guy who shot the bear, but I gotta tell you, I don’t recognize much of that story.”
Tale Two - What really happened.
About five days before, I had gotten a call. A woman who lived about a quarter mile up the road in a newly built cabin called me in a state of panic in the late afternoon. Her little toy poodle had come up missing and she thought she had seen some big animal skulking about. Could I come up and take a look? No problem. I told her I’d scout on the way up to see what I could find. I figured it was probably a deer she had seen and the dog had taken out after it. It had happened before, but she was a young, new mother, originally from some city in the Midwest, and tended to panic at the slightest thing here in “the wilderness.” I don’t think she was entirely pleased that her husband had moved her here, although she did say she loved the mountains and the little home they had built in the pines. He was at work at the time, which explained why she had called me. Most folks in the neighborhood knew that I had finished my stint at the ranch and was working on machinery at my place, preparing for the haying season.
At this time of day, I wasn’t worried about running into anything serious, so I headed up the road with nothing but the folding hunter in its belt sheath that I always had with me. I didn’t see anything on the way up until I turned into the timber just below her place. About ten yards in, a small tag of fluff fluttering from a small bush caught my attention. I wandered over to check it out, figuring it was probably nothing important. When I reached it, my senses went on alert. The scent of a boar bear still hung in the hot afternoon air and the soft ground litter held unrecognizable imprints of something large. The fluff turned out to be dog hair... poodle hair to be precise. I squatted and looked through the maze of tree trunks, scanning for any movement. A fly buzzed lazily, but nothing else moved. I proceeded to the woman’s home and noticed more tufts of poodle hair scattered about the porch. The bag of dog food had been spilled out of the garbage can that was meant to protect it and it was obvious something had eaten a substantial amount of it. The ground around it was scuffed up and nearby I found another tuft of poodle hair, this one was matted and wet. Things weren’t looking good for the poodle. She must have noticed me poking about because she opened the back door slightly and asked if it was okay to come out. I told her it was, nothing seemed to be about at the moment.
“Did you find anything?” she asked tentatively.
“I didn’t find your dog,” I replied. “Something has been through here, though. Looks like it tore up your dog food.” I really didn’t want to say “bear” for fear that her anxiety level would shoot up about ten notches. “You really shouldn’t leave dog food outside. It’s an open invitation for a lot of critters.”
“It was in a garbage can,” she said defensively.
“A big raccoon can tip that over,” I shrugged.
“I don’t think it was a raccoon.”
“What do you think it was?” I probed.
“I think it was a bear.”
I had a feeling she might have seen more than she was letting on... the strain on her face was a bit of a give away. “It’s possible,” I returned. “If you clean up that dog food and put it inside, I don’t think whatever it was will come back.”
“I took the baby in right before I heard the noise,” there was a catch in her voice. “I had her out sunning on the porch and had gone inside to put up dishes.”
I pushed my hat back and looked up to where she stood, baby in her arms. “I wouldn’t make a habit out of that. It’s best if you stay with her when she’s outside. Any number of things can happen.”
I figured that was the end of it. A opportunistic bear had taken advantage of a city slicker’s ignorance and had helped himself to a free meal. With new folks moving into the valley on almost a daily basis, I was sure he would continue to cash in on that ignorance. He’d probably continue to wander, but the fact that bears are creatures of habit raised concerns that he would be back through here. It was best not to take chances, so I let the neighbors know that there was a bear in the area. I figured he would lose interest if people were careful with their garbage, dog food, and other things that attract bears. I was wrong. The next day, before dawn, the bear struck again, severely injuring a horse a stone’s throw from my place. I went on alert. This behavior was highly unusual. He got around to my place on the next day. He laid out five head of sheep as they were coming in from the back pasture... it looked like he ran down the line swatting them. I found them almost immediately afterwards, alerted by the agitated barking of my dogs. The remaining sheep had run into the inner pasture in a panic and were milling about anxiously. The five the bear had killed were stretched out in an almost straight line, their spines snapped. Whether it was the dogs, or my presence, the bear had left, without touching them once they were dead. Killing one sheep, I could understand, but laying out five? This was very unusual behavior. The next night, the bear was back, this time going after the bee hives. He wrecked three of the nine I had in the pasture. We had a problem bear on our hands... what folks here called a rogue. The problem had to be handled.
I called the local Warden and told him I intended to end the problem at the earliest possible moment. He asked if I had a bear license, and I assured him I did. I had picked one up the day the poodle came up missing... just in case. A couple of friends of mine had heard about the bear and asked if they could come up and have a go at getting him. I agreed. I wish I hadn’t. The bear was coming in at night. You need two things to get a bear at night. Decent light, and a good scope on your rifle. Patience doesn’t hurt either. That night, they took a position out in my pasture where I told them they could see the bear coming in. Sure enough, the bear came back. Unfortunately, my friends left their patience at home. About three in the morning, it sounded like World War III had broken out. I thought about going out into the pasture, and then rethought that. Adrenaline charged hunters with loaded guns... in the dark... not a good idea to take a nighttime stroll. I waited until dawn. They were pretty sure they had gotten him... they’d seen him run to the northwest after shooting. I walked out to that part of the property. I found the trail easily. The bear had left at a dead run, scattering pine needles and dirt. He’d made his jump a good four feet from the fence, and by the marks had cleared it and landed six feet on the other side. Impressive. But there wasn’t a speck of blood on that trail. I gave my friends the bad news. They had missed him clean.
“We’ll come back tonight... we’ll get him sure.”
“Nah, fellahs, I think I’ll take a crack at him tonight. If I don’t get him, you can try the next night.”
I wanted to be very alert that night, so I forced myself to nap during the day, but only after I had pounded some steel posts around the bee hives, attached insulators, and run wire around it, connecting it to a battery powered electric fencer. I switched it on to make sure it was working properly. The yellow indicator light blinked on and off, matching the satisfying buzz of electricity flowing through the wire. Even if the bear didn’t come in tonight, at least this would prevent him from bothering the hives again. I ran another electrified line around my inner livestock yard to protect the animals I had herded in. With the gate closed, they were reasonably safe as well.
Around ten that evening I went out to where I parked my pickup in the pasture, put the rifle in the passenger seat, muzzle against the floorboard, and settled in to wait. A partial moon rose, bathing the pasture in a dim bluish light. It wasn’t like daylight, but I should be able to see the bear if it came in. You don’t stare when you are looking for something at night... you’ll miss it. You look in the distance, past your objective and let your peripheral vision work for you. The hours passed slowly. Bears are creatures of habit. If he ran true to form, as he had the last couple of nights, he would make his run around three in the morning, so around two, I eased out of the pickup, grabbed the rifle, and eased the door shut, making sure it closed all the way to douse the interior light. Then I took up a prone position to the right and slightly forward of the truck. The wind was with me, blowing out of the southwest, carrying my scent away from the bear’s usual path. The air was cool, not cold, so I settled in and waited.
A half hour passed. Something started walking up my back leg. ‘Barn cat,’ I thought and ignored it. It continued up my back until it stopped just below my neck, stretching out to sniff my ear. Its nose was wet. Something was wrong with that. I didn’t move. The creature slowly came off my shoulder, made a little arc, and faced me. Uh oh. I was staring into the face of a striped skunk. It stretched forward to examine me closer. I wanted him to move away without making a move that would startle him. Out of the corner of my mouth, I blew a jet of air at him. Pfffft! He retreated an inch and blinked. Then he stretched forward again. I repeated the tactic. This time he looked startled and turned end for end faster than a frog dodging a heron. OH NOOO! There was little I could do, but squeeze my eyes and mouth shut and try to squeeze my nostrils as tight as I could. Still, this wasn’t going to be pleasant. I held my breath. I held if for what seemed to be a long time. Nothing. I didn’t dare move. Not yet. Finally, I carefully opened my left eye... just a slit, mind you. Fifteen feet away I spotted the waving tail of the skunk as he casually departed the scene. Disaster avoided.
I resumed my wait. Time passes slowly sometimes. This was one of those times. Time just flat dragged. I was starting to get a cramp from holding my position so long, and was about to reach down and rub my thigh when I spotted the shadow slipping in from the tree line to my left. I froze, moving only to position the rifle, and then so slowly it would have taken an eagle eye to spot it. Bears are notoriously near sighted, but they make up for that with a keen sense of smell and intensely good hearing. My movements were silent. The bear stopped once and tested the air as he emerged fully into the open pasture, pointing his nose upward and slowly moving it in an arc. I could see that clearly in the pale light of the moon. I waited. The bear finally moved forward, rapidly covering the ground to the small stand of trees around a rock pile in the center of my pasture, not more than 60 yards in front of me. He moved silently, amazing for such a large animal, and then he just sat down in front of the trees to stare at the blinking light on the fencer.
I slowly brought the rifle up to sight through the scope. The faint light faded as clouds covered the moon. Not good. All I could see was a darkness in the scope and a dark shape through my other eye. Ever so slowly, I eased the scope up until it was lighter above the hump of his shoulders. Then I brought it down just as slowly until darkness filled the scope. This was going to be chancy, but I couldn’t afford to lose any more livestock. It was a best guess. I sucked in my breath, let it out half way and squeezed the trigger. The explosion of the .300 magnum rocked the night and the bear tore away from where he sat, retracing his path noisily, crashing through the brush piles back to the edge of the timber. Then silence. I knew I’d hit him solidly, but I wasn’t about to go after him in the dark. I waited for awhile listening, then I stood, cradled the rifle, and walked back to my house to get a cup of coffee and wait for the dawn that was nearly two and a half hours away.
At first light, I strapped on my recently acquired Ruger Blackhawk® .30 caliber pistol, took the rifle, and went out to search for the bear. I knew his path and followed it. A hundred yards from where the bullet had struck him, he had fallen. He was dead the instant the bullet penetrated, but still had enough oxygen in his system to run that far. He lay still just inside the edge of the timber. It was a large bear, weighing around 400 pounds and measuring over six feet from tip of nose to base of tail. He had a broad head, much broader than the local bears, one more typical of Canadian varieties. This was a transplant... a relocated problem bear, I guessed. That was later confirmed. The bear had been relocated to the edge of the Selway from Glacier Park. Their problem had become my problem and that night, the problem was solved. No attack, no big battle, just an anticlimactic end predetermined by patience and the animal’s own habits. Not quite as exciting as the tale at the Post Office. Funny how stories get warped as they’re told and retold. Even funnier how rapidly that happens.