Grizzly Bear Hunting in the Shoshone Mountains*

Guest Writer George O Shields

“Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame, Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”
~Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux

THE bear, like man, inhabits almost every latitude and every land, and has even been translated to the starry heavens, where the constellations of the Great Dipper and the Little Dipper are known to us as well as to the ancients as Ursi Major and Minor. But North America furnishes the largest and most aggressive species in the grizzly (Ursus horribilis), the black (Ursus americanus), and the polar (Ursus maritimus) bears, and here the hunter finds his most daring sport. Of all the known plantigrades (flat-footed beasts) the grizzly is the most savage and the most dreaded, and he is the largest of all, saving the presence of his cousin the polar bear, for which, nevertheless, he is more than a match in strength and courage.

Some specimens measure seven feet from tip of nose to root of tail. The distinctive marks of the species are its great size; the shortness of the tail as compared with the ears; the huge flat paws, the sole of the hind foot sometimes measuring seven and a half by five inches in a large male; length of the hind legs as compared with the fore legs, which gives the beast his awkward, shambling gait; the long claws of the fore foot, sometimes seven inches in length, while those of the hind foot measure only three or four; the erect, bristling mane of stiff hair, often six inches long; the coarse hair of the body, sometimes three inches long, dark at the base, but with light tips. He has a dark stripe along the back, and one along each side, the hair on his body being, as a rule, a brownish-yellow, the region around the ears dusky, the legs nearly black, and the muzzle pale. Color, however, is not a distinctive mark, for female grizzlies have been killed in company with two cubs, one of which was brown, the other gray, or one dark, the other light; and the supposed species of “cinnamon” and “brown” bears are merely color variations of Ursus horribilis himself.

This ubiquitous gentleman has a wide range for his habitat. He has been found on the Missouri River from Fort Pierre northward, and thence west to his favorite haunts in the Rockies; on the Pacific slope clear down to the coast; as far south as Mexico, and as far north as the Great Slave Lake in British America. He not only ranges everywhere, but eats everything. His majesty is a good liver. He is not properly a beast of prey, for he has neither the cat-like instincts, nor the noiseless tread of the felidæ, nor is he fleet and long-winded like the wolf, although good at a short run, as an unlucky hunter may find. But he hangs about the flanks of a herd of buffalo, with probably an eye to a wounded or disabled animal, and he frequently raids a ranch and carries off a sheep, hog, or calf that is penned beyond the possibility of escape.

Elk is his favorite meat, and the knowing hunter who has the good luck to kill an elk makes sure that its carcass will draw Mr Grizzly if he is within a range of five miles. He will eat not only flesh, fish, and fowl, but roots, herbs, fruit, vegetables, honey, and insects as well. Plums, buffalo-berries, and choke-cherries make a large part of his diet in their seasons.

The grizzly bear possesses greater vitality and tenacity of life than any other animal on the continent, and the hunter who would hunt him must be well armed and keep a steady nerve. Each shot must be cooly put where it will do the most good. Several are frequently necessary to stop one of these savage beasts. A single bullet lodged in the brain is fatal. If shot through the heart he may run a quarter of a mile or kill a man before he succumbs. In the days of the old muzzle-loading rifle it was hazardous indeed to hunt the grizzly, and many a man has paid the penalty of his folly with his life. With our improved breech-loading and repeating rifles there is less risk.

The grizzly is said to bury carcasses of large animals for future use as food, but this I doubt. I have frequently returned to carcasses of elk or deer that I had killed and found that during my absence bears had partially destroyed them, and in their excitement, occasioned by the smell or taste of fresh meat, had pawed up the earth a good deal thereabout, throwing dirt and leaves in various directions, and some of this débris may have fallen on the bodies of the dead game; but I have never seen where any systematic attempt had been made at burying a carcass. Still, Bruin may have played the sexton in some cases. He hibernates during winter, but does not take to his long sleep until the winter has thoroughly set in and the snow is quite deep. He may frequently be tracked and found in snow a foot deep, where he is roaming in search of food. He becomes very fat before going into winter quarters, and this vast accumulation of oil furnishes nutriment and heat sufficient to sustain life during his long confinement.

The newspapers often kill grizzlies weighing 1,500, 1,800, or even 2,000 pounds, and in any party of frontiersmen “talking grizzly” you will find plenty of men who can give date and place where they killed or helped to kill at least 1,800 pounds of Bruin.

“Did you weigh it?”

“No, we didn’t weigh ‘im; but every man as seed ‘im said he would weigh that, and they was all good jedges, too.”

And this is the way most of the stories of big bear, big elk, big deer, etc, begin and end. Bears are usually, though not always, killed at considerable distances from towns, or even ranches, where it is not easy to find a scales large enough to weigh so much meat.

The largest grizzly I have ever killed would not weigh more than 700 or 800 pounds, and I do not believe one has ever lived that would weigh 1,000 pounds. The flesh of the adult grizzly is tough, stringy, and decidedly unpalatable, but that of a young fat one is tender and juicy, and is always a welcome dish on the hunter’s table.

The female usually gives birth to two cubs, and sometimes three, at a time. birth they weigh only about 1¼ to 1½ pounds each …. The female is unusually vicious while rearing her young, and the hunter must be doubly cautious about attacking at that time. An Indian rarely attacks a grizzly single-handed at any time, and it is only when several of these native hunters are together that they will attempt to kill one. They value the claws very highly, however, and take great pride in wearing strings of them around their necks.

The grizzly usually frequents the timbered or brush-covered portions of mountainous regions, or the timbered valleys of streams that head in the mountains. He occasionally follows down the course of these streams, and even travels many miles from one stream to another, or from one range of mountains to another, across open prairie. I once found one on a broad open plateau in the Big Horn Mountains, about half a mile from the nearest cover of any kind. He was turning over rocks in search of worms. At the report of my rifle he started for the nearest cañon [canyon], but never reached it. An explosive bullet through his lungs rendered him unequal to the journey.

Few persons believe that a grizzly will attack a man before he is himself attacked. I was one of these doubting Thomases until a few years ago, when I was thoroughly convinced by ocular demonstration that some grizzlies, at least, will attempt to make a meal off a man even though he may not have harmed them previously. We were hunting in the Shoshone Mountains in Northern Wyoming. I had killed a large elk in the morning, and on going back to the carcass in the afternoon to skin it we saw that Bruin had been there ahead us, but had fled on our approach. Without the least apprehension of his return, we leaned our rifles against a tree about fifty feet away, and commenced work. There were three of us, but only two rifles, Mr Huffman, the photographer, having left his in camp. He had finished taking views of the carcass, and we were all busily engaged skinning, when, hearing a crashing in the brush and a series of savage roars and growls, we looked up the hill, and were horrified to see three grizzly bears, an old female and two cubs about two-thirds grown, charging upon us with all the savage fury of a pack of starving wolves upon a sheepfold.

To make a long story short, we killed the old female and one cub; the other escaped into the jungle before we could get a shot at him. The resolute front we put on alone saved our lives.

In another instance, when hunting deer in Idaho, I came suddenly upon a female grizzly and two cubs, when the mother bear charged me savagely and would have killed me had I not fortunately controlled my nerves long enough to put a couple of bullets through her and stop her before she got to me.

I have heard of several other instances of grizzlies making unprovoked attacks on men, which were so well substantiated that I could not question the truth of the reports.

The grizzly is partially nocturnal in his habits, and apparently divides his labor of obtaining food and his traveling about equally between day and night. It is not definitely known to what age he lives in his wild state, but he is supposed to attain to twenty-five or thirty years. Several have lived in domestication to nearly that age, and one died in Union Park, Chicago, a few years ago, that was known to be eighteen years old ….

Some years ago I went into the mountains with a party of friends to hunt elk. Our guide told us we should find plenty of grouse along the trail, from the day we left the settlements; that on the third day out we should find elk, and that it would therefore be useless to burden our pack-horses with meat. We accordingly took none save a small piece of bacon.

Contrary to his predictions, however, we found no grouse or other small game en route, and soon ate up our bacon. Furthermore, we were five days in reaching the elk country, instead of three as he said. All this time we were climbing mountains and had appetites that are known only to mountain climbers. We had plenty of bread and potatoes, but these were not sufficient. We hankered for flesh, and though we filled ourselves with vegetable food, yet were we hungry.

Finally we reached our destination at midday. we were unloading the horses, a “fool hen” came and lit in a tree near us. A rifle ball beheaded her, and almost before she was done kicking she was in the frying pan … What was one little grouse among five half-starved men? The smell and taste only made us long for more.

After dinner we all went out and hunted until dark. Soon after leaving camp some of us heard lively firing up the cañon, where our guide had gone, and felt certain that he had secured meat, for we had heard glowing accounts, from him and his friends, of his prowess as a hunter. The rest of us were not so despondent, therefore, when we returned at dusk empty handed, as we should otherwise have been, until we reached camp and found the guide there wearing a long face and bloodless hands.

He told a doleful story of having had five fair shots at a large bull elk, who stood broadside on, only seventy-five yards away, but who finally became alarmed at the fusilade and fled, leaving no blood on his trail. The guide of course anathematized his gun in the choicest terms known to frontiersmen, and our mouths watered as we thought of what might have been.

Our potatoes, having been compelled to stand for meat also, had vanished rapidly, and we ate the last of them for supper that night. Few words were spoken and no jokes cracked over that meal. We ate bread straight for breakfast, and turning out early hunted diligently all day. We were nearly famished when we returned at night and no one had seen any living thing larger than a pine squirrel. It is written that “man shall not live by bread alone” [Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4] and we found that we could not much longer. And soon we should not have even that, for our flour was getting low. But we broke the steaming flat-cake again at supper, and turned in to dream of juicy steaks, succulent joints, and delicious rib roasts.

We were up before daylight to find that six or eight inches of light snow had fallen silently during the night, which lay piled up on the branches of the trees, draping the dense forests in ghostly white. Our drooping spirits revived, for we hoped that the tell-tale mantle would enable us to find the game we so much needed in our business. We broke our bread more cheerfully that morning than for two days previously, but at the council of war held over the frugal meal, decided that unless we scored that day we must make tracks for the nearest ranch the next morning, and try to make our scanty remnant of flour keep us alive until we could get there.

Breakfast over we scattered ourselves by the four points of the compass and set out. It fell to my lot to go up the cañon. Silently I strode through the forest, scanning the snow in search of foot-prints, but for an hour I could see none. Then, as I cautiously ascended a ridge, I heard a crash in the brush beyond and reached the summit just in time to see the latter end of a large bull elk disappear in the thicket.

He had not heard or seen me, but had winded me, and tarried not for better acquaintance. I followed his trail some three miles up the cañon, carefully penetrating the thickets and peering among the larger trees, but never a glimpse could I get and never a sound could I hear of him. He seemed unusually wild. I could see by his trail that he had not stopped, but had kept straight away on that long, swinging trot that is such a telling gait of the species, and which they will sometimes keep up for hours together.

Finally I came to where he had left the cañon and ascended the mountain. I followed up this for a time, but seeing that he had not yet paused, and finding that my famished condition rendered me unequal to the climb, was compelled to abandon the pursuit and with a heavy heart return again to the cañon. I kept on up it, but could find no other game or sign of any.

Like the red hunter, in the time of famine, who “Vainly walked through the forest, Sought for bird, or beast, and found none; Saw no track of deer or rabbit, In the snow beheld no foot-prints, In the ghostly gleaming forest Fell and could not rise from weakness,” so I trudged on until, wearied and worn out, I lay down beside a giant fir tree, whose spreading branches had kept the snow from the ground, and fell asleep. When I awoke my joints were stiff and sore, and I was chilled to the bone. It was late in the afternoon, and a quiet, drizzling rain had set in.

I found the trail that led through the cañon, and started back to camp, trudging along as rapidly as possible, for hunger was gnawing at my vitals and my strength was fast failing. “Over snow-fields waste and pathless, Under snow-encumbered branches, Empty-handed, heavy-hearted,” I toiled wearily on. The snow had become saturated with the rain, and great chunks of it were falling from the trees with dull, monotonous sounds. “Slush, slush,” “Splash, splash,” came the gloomy sounds from all parts of the woods. I was nearing camp, and had abandoned all hope of seeing game. My only object was to reach shelter, to rest, and feast on the unsatisfying bread. I heard a succession of the splashings that came from my left with such regular cadence as to cause me to look up, when, great St Hubert! there came a huge grizzly bear shambling and splashing along through the wet snow. It was his footsteps that I had been hearing for a minute or two past, and which I had, at first, thought to be the falling snow.

He had not yet seen me, and what a marvelous change came over me! I forgot that I was tired; that I was weak; that I was hungry. The instincts of the hunter reanimated me, and I thought only of killing the grand game before me. I threw down my rifle, raising the hammer as the weapon came into position, and the click of the lock reached his ear. It was the first intimation he had of possible danger, and he stopped and threw up his head to look and listen. My thoughts came and went like flashes of lightning. remembered then the famishing condition of myself and friends. Here was meat, and I must save it. There must be no nervousness—no wild shooting now. This shot must tell. And there was not a tremor in all my system. Every nerve was as of steel for the instant. The little gold bead on the muzzle of the rifle instantly found the vital spot behind the bear’s shoulder, gleamed through the rear sight like a spark of fire, and before he had time to realize what the strange apparition was that had so suddenly confronted him, the voice of the Winchester was echoing through the cañon and an express bullet had crashed through his vitals.

The shock was so sudden and the effect on him so deadly that he apparently thought nothing of fight, but only of seeking a place to die in peace.

He wheeled and shot into a neighboring thicket with the speed of an arrow. I fired at him again as he disappeared. He crashed through the jungle out into the open woods, turned to the right and went across a ridge as if Satan himself were after him. As the big gray mass shot through a clear space between two trees I gave him another speeder, and then he disappeared beyond a ridge.

The snow had melted rapidly and the ground was bare in places, so that I had some trouble in trailing the bear, but wherever he crossed a patch of snow his trail was bespattered with blood. I followed over the ridge and through scattering jack pines, about two hundred yards, and found him lying dead near the trail. My first and third bullets had gone in behind his shoulder only an inch apart. The first had passed clear through him, and the other had lodged against the skin on the opposite side. Several ribs were broken on either side, and his lungs and other portions of his interior were ground into sausage; yet so great was his vitality and tenacity to life that he was able to make this distance at a speed that would have taxed the best horse in the country, and if he had seen fit to attack me instead of running away he would probably have made sausage of me.

But what feasting and what revelry there was in camp that night. It was a young bear, fat as butter, and rib roasts and cutlets were devoured in quantities that would have shocked the modesty of a tramp. Not until well into the night did we cease to eat, and wrap ourselves in our blankets. We staid several days in the cañon after that, and killed plenty of elk and other game. …

The skin of the grizzly is one of the most valuable trophies a sportsman can obtain on any field, and its rarity, and the danger and excitement attending the taking of it, the courage it bespeaks on the part of the hunter, render it a prize of which the winner may justly feel proud for a lifetime.

The best localities in which to hunt the grizzly bear—that is, those most accessible and in which he is now most numerous—are the Big Horn, Shoshone, Wind River, Bear Tooth, Belt, and Crazy Mountains, in Wyoming and Montana, all of which may be easily reached by way of the Northern Pacific road.

The best time of year to hunt for this, as well as all the other species of large game in the Rocky Mountains, is in the months of September, October, and November, though in the latter month the sportsman should not venture high up into the mountains where heavy snow-falls are liable to occur. There is a great deal of bear hunting done in the summer months, but it is contrary to the laws of nature, and should not be indulged in by any true sportsman. The skins are nearly worthless then, while in the autumn they are prime; the heat is oppressive, and the flies and mosquitoes are great pests.

The best arm for this class of game is a repeating rifle of large calibre, 45 or 50, carrying a large charge of powder and a solid bullet. The new Winchester express, 50/110, with solid ball, is perhaps the best in the market, all things considered.

There are several methods of hunting the grizzly, the most common being to kill an elk, and then watch the carcass. Shots may frequently be obtained in this way early in the morning or late in the evening, and on bright moonlight nights it is best to watch all night, for the immense size of the grizzly renders him an easy target at short range even by moonlight. Another method is to still-hunt him, the same as is done with deer. This is perhaps the most sportsmanlike of all, and if a coulee or creek bottom be selected where there are plenty of berries, or an open, hilly, rocky country, where the bears are in the habit of hunting for worms, or any good feeding-ground where bear signs are plentiful, and due care and caution be exercised, there is as good a chance of success as by any other method. Many hunters set guns with a cord running from the trigger to a bait of fresh meat, and the muzzle of the gun pointing at the meat; others set large steel traps or deadfalls. But such contrivances are never used by true sportsmen.

Game of any kind should always be pursued in a fair, manly manner, and given due chance to preserve its life if it is skillful enough to do so. If captured, let it be by the superior skill, sagacity, or endurance of the sportsman, not by traps which close on it as it innocently and unsuspectingly seeks its food.

Grizzly bear hunting is unquestionably the grandest sport that our continent affords. The grizzly is the only really dangerous game we have, and the decidedly hazardous character of the sport is what gives it its greatest zest, and renders it the most fascinating of pursuits. Many sportsmen proclaim the superiority of their favorite pastime over all other kinds, be it quail, grouse, or duck shooting, fox-chasing, deer-stalking, or what not; and each has its charm, more or less intense, according to its nature; but no man ever felt his heart swell with pride, his nerves tingle with animation, his whole system glow with wild, uncontrollable enthusiasm, at the bagging of any bird or small animal, as does the man who stands over the prostrate form of a monster grizzly that he has slain. Let the devotee of these other classes of sport try bear hunting, and when he has bagged his first grizzly, then let him talk!

“Our moral and ethical responsibility is to protect other species in the spirit of husbandry rather than destroy them in an attitude of conquest.” ~Charles Southwick

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapter 21. Photos, quotes added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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