If he were still alive, Joe Evans would be pleased that black bears have come back to the high country of Texas.
Of course, Evans had a fair amount to do with the virtual disappearance of the black bear from its historic habitat in the Davis Mountains of far West Texas and elsewhere in the Big Bend. And over in East Texas, an earlier generation of hunters – men like Ben Lilly – killed out the bears in that neck of the woods.
In a Sacramento used book shop, casually pawing through a box of booklets like a mildly hungry bear checking out a picnic basket, some years ago I found an old pamphlet by Evans called “Bear Stories.” Published in the late 1930s or early 1940s, the booklet is about bear hunting in the Davis Mountains. It’s a scarce piece of Texana and I bought it back from California to Texas where it belongs.
The best tale in the booklet is about the only grizzly bear ever documented in the Davis Mountains. In fact, the grizzly was the only one ever known to have been killed anywhere in Texas.
To appreciate the significance of that, you have to understand the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear. Black bears are content eating berries and nuts. Grizzlies are carnivores. Not named Ursus horribilis for nothing, they will attack and eat livestock or humans.
Evans and others who hunted black bear in the Davis Mountains back in the late 19th century and during the first few decades of the 20th century saw it as grand adventure. Today, conservationists realize that over-hunting nearly exterminated the bear in Texas. But the killing of the bear Evans called “The Big Grizzly” probably was the end of the line for a unique grizzly species labeled texensis.
“We had an annual bear hunt in the Davis Mountains… where we took our family,” Evans wrote. “On some hunts we would kill as many as ten bear, a mountain lion or two and possibly a lobo wolf and the trees around camp were hanging full of deer and antelope. Those were happy days.” (For the hunters.)
Out after black bear, on Nov. 2, 1890 they found a dead, partially eaten cow near the head of Limpia Creek in Jeff Davis County. Near the carcass was a critter-made bed of pine needles 10 feet long. Close to the lair was a final, unmistakable clue: A bear track 13 inches long and nearly 6 inches across. The hunters knew they had found the handiwork of a grizzly.
Of 35 dogs the hunters had, only four were tenacious enough-or dumb enough-to take the grizzly’s trail. Their nose to the ground, the dogs followed his scent for five miles, finally cornering the big bruin in a thicket.
The first two hunters to ride up on the standoff, John Means and C.O. Finely, cut loose on the grizzly. Each man put five rifle slugs in the bear, which they later estimated weighed 1,000 pounds.
From a mile away, the slower riding hunters could hear the wounded bear bellowing like a bull, the great male’s death cries reverberating off the ancient igneous rock piled along the canyon. Before he died, the grizzly killed one of the four dogs with a powerful swing of one of his huge paws.
The bear’s skull was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In 1918, a scientist assigned sub-species status to the animal it once belonged to. Tracks that may have been made by a grizzly were found in the Guadalupe Mountains in 1931, but the bear was never seen. During the Texas Centennial in 1935-1936, Evans enlisted the help of his Congressman to get the skull loaned for a time for display in Texas but the museum said it was too rare to be allowed outside the museum.
Today, the Parks and Wildlife Department says black bears have reestablished themselves in the Big Bend, but no one has seen a grizzly bear or any sure sign of one in this state since Victorian times. In East Texas these days, a black bear is occasionally spotted, but biologists believe they are visitors from Arkansas or Louisiana.
If Evans felt any twinge of regret over the demise of the only grizzly ever known to have trod Texas, he did not betray that in his booklet.
“The killing of this grizzly was the climax [of] all our hunting experiences in the Davis Mountains,” he wrote.