Published 10:28 am Thursday, July 17, 2003
Normally I try to keep this column's topics pretty close to home. Once in a while, though, it's fun to expand our musings farther afield. Something I've been fascinated with ever since I was old enough to read is a creature referred to as the plains grizzly bear. I can't think of any animal, other than perhaps the sasquatch, so surrounded in mystery. This wasn't your basic garden variety grizzly bear. This was a monstrous creature that roamed the plains with the buffalo. The question is, was this a unique species now extinct or something like the Kodiak bear, just a regular grizzly gone King Kong from an excessive diet?
This seed was planted in me as a wee lad when I read an old hunter's memoirs of hunting these giants. It was in some old, frayed magazine I'd hoarded in anticipation of being able to read someday. You have to understand I didn't cut my reading teeth on books like "The Little Engine That Could" and "Green Eggs and Ham". I went straight to the good stuff like Outdoor Life and Sports Afield magazines. It seems like this article was in an early edition of Field &Stream. Or was it True? You know, that magazine featuring stories about 38DD blondes wrestling thirty foot long crocodiles, complete with full color illustrations. Whatever.
Anyway, over the years the plains grizzly mystery has stuck with me. There are about as many opinions on the plains grizzly as there are experts. The scientific name for a regular old griz is ursus arctos horribilis. Believers in the plains grizzly refer to it as ursus horribilis horribilis, obviously twice as big and horrible.
Our earliest accounts of double horrible come from the Lewis and Clark expedition, launched, I believe, in 1803. When they ventured onto the vast plains they started running into these huge bears. They'd seen plenty of black bears in their day but nothing like this. They called it the "white bear". Okay, today grizzlies carry the nickname of silvertip because of the white tipped outer hairs. Silvertip, white, what's the difference? The difference is Lewis and Clark also reported another smaller bear they called the brown bear, most likely the standard grizzly we know today. They made a clear distinction between them. The L&C folks would not take on the white bears with anything less than eight skilled marksmen. Other early western explorers also brought back accounts of a humongous white bear wandering the prairies.
It's when you go to the technical books that things get confusing. Some scientific types accept the plains grizzly as a species as matter of factly as tyranasaurus rex and other known extinct critters. Others argue that the plains grizzly was just a regular grizzly adapted to handle buffalo.
To show the confusion here's the view of several respectable agencies. The Great Plains Restoration Council considers the plains grizzly a seperate specie, ursus horribilis horribilis and declares it extinct. Saskatchewan, once inhabited by plains grizzlies, officially declares it just a plain old grizzly. The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service recognizes a plains grizzly now extirpated but doesn't clearly say if they consider it a seperate species or not. National Geographic, which rarely gets things wrong, throws in with Saskatchewan, saying it was just old griz on a super diet.
Swan Hills in central Alberta was the last bastion of the plains grizzly. Some Swan Hills authorities say that WAS the last known population of plains grizzlies while others say it IS the last existing population of plains grizzlies as there's still a few regular grizzlies around. Even they can't agree. Then there's the Swan Hills journalist that declares the plains grizzly extinct and describes it as being twenty feet long and weighing in excess of a ton. That puts it at over twice the size of the biggest Kodiak bears. And I thought I had a fertile imagination.
There may be an answer to this debate. In 1805 Lewis and Clark sent a "white bear" skin back to Washington. Assuming that hide still lurks in some dusty Smithsonian repository the dilemma could be easily resolved with DNA. We just need someone to get interested. Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org