The Last Texas Grizzly
How a 1900 West Texas bear hunt made scientific history.
By John R. Meyer
David J. Schmidley’s Mammals of Trans-Pecos Texas talks about them. My 25-year-old copy of Stackpole’s Guide to Animal Tracks does, too, but finding someone alive who’s seen a wild grizzly bear in Texas is impossible. For all we know, there may have been only one, and it was killed by a hunting party in 1900. An account of the adventure, based on a letter written several years after the hunt by one of the participants, C.O. Finley, appeared in the August 1948 issue of Texas Game and Fish.
Finley’s letter began: “Am enclosing the history ... of the bear hunt the day we killed the old grizzly bear. John and I had often talked of doing this but had put it off until now. He is gone, and it is up to me, for I did not want to go (pass on) and leave the most eventful day ever spent in the Davis Mountains unwritten.”
Settlers had long found the Davis Mountains a desirable locale for raising livestock. The region’s grass, water and weather formed a solid foundation for the cattle business. Over time, as the population of livestock and people grew, so did the number of conflicts between ranchers and native predators.
A ready supply of acorns and fat cows, combined with the mountainous terrain, made for excellent black bear habitat. Bears were considered the single biggest threat to a rancher’s livestock. The accepted practice of the day was to control their population with an annual hunt. Seventy-five-year-old Odie Finley of Liberty Hill, grandson of rancher C.O. Finley, describes the mentality of the day: “All they were doing was protecting their cattle. Bears were plentiful and hungry, and they spent their whole lives killing livestock. These old men were doing what they thought was the right thing to do with a predator. They weren’t doing it for fun.”
Over time, though, the annual hunts evolved into popular social events, attracting around 75 people. The participants grew to include more than just the hunters. Odie points out that women were welcome on the hunt. They typically rode side-saddle, a feat he regards with extreme respect given the rough terrain. Women were just as enthusiastic about the event as the men, since Mexican cooks were hired for the week, which allowed them some much-deserved time off from their culinary duties. Horse wranglers, to manage the string of 100 or more saddle horses, and chuckwagon cooks were part of the crew, along with a motley pack of dogs from several different families.
William Benjamin Bloys was an itinerant Presbyterian minister who served families in the Fort Davis area. In 1890, he began attending the bear hunt because it was one of the few occasions when the area’s far-flung families were all in one place. The result was a reunion of sorts that was part revival and part square dance, with plenty of good eating and fellowship.
Amazingly, the Bloys “Camp meeting” continues today. It takes place near Fort Davis on a section of land containing Skillman Grove, the site of the first gathering. “The only connection between the bear hunt and Bloys was that the ranchers made a social event out of the hunt. If they could get together to hunt, then why not hold a camp meeting?” explains Odie Finley.
Much of the hunting provided food for the meeting. “That stopped when game laws went into effect,” Odie says. Today, more than a thousand people attend the annual six-day meeting, with most able to name at least one relative who was part of the original 47.
A hallmark of the meeting was and still is unity among the represented denominations: Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Methodist and Baptist. Worship services are held three times a day in a permanent building on the grounds, with a variety of preachers. This level of cooperation and unity is a miracle in and of itself, as most of the rules set up to keep things amicable date from the turn of the century.
The gathering in the fall of 1900 started out as usual at the area known as the Rock Pile, near Sawtooth Mountain. On November 3, the fifth day of hunting, the group left, in typical fashion, around sunup, heading into the mountains with 50 veteran bear dogs in tow. Finley and John Means, good friends who always hunted together, separated from the main group and went up the side of the mountain, then turned and rode parallel to the rest of the group below, a mile or two away, in C.O.’s estimation.
Soon the riders came upon the carcass of a heifer that had been dragged a hundred or more yards into a thicket. Just then, a huge bear stirred from its bed in some nearby brush. It took off up the side of the mountain, crossed the ridge in front of them and vanished.
Will Evans spotted the bear in the distance, running alone. “Where were all the dogs?” he wrote in his account of the hunt. He heard a shot followed by a deafening roar.
The horses could go no farther due to the increasingly rough terrain, so the hunters dismounted. The skittish dogs had been urged back toward the bear and had it held up in a deep canyon, thick with brush. Finley and Means unleashed a barrage of .30-caliber slugs from a ledge 125 yards away. The bear made a last, desperate lunge at the dogs and dispatched one with a blow to the head and neck. One more round of bullets finished the job. Only after seeing one of the dogs tug at the fur of the bear did the men approach it and find the surprise of their lives. Though neither had ever seen a grizzly, Means recognized the silver tips on the fur and let out a yell: “Otie, we have got a grizzly!”
Even to seasoned bear hunters, the animal was massive, with three-inch claws (a typical black bear’s claws are about an inch long). They estimated the bear’s weight at 800 pounds. Eight men eventually arrived to help, but even a group effort couldn’t transport the entire bear.
The hide, feet and head were lashed to the back of one of the horses. The burden proved too great for the horse, and the load was eventually transferred to a buckboard pulled by a pair of mules for the last part of the trek.
About a year after the epic hunt, a young biologist showed up at Finley’s door. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Biological Survey, a forerunner of the Biological Survey Unit of the Department of the Interior. Since 1885, the department had been pursuing its vision of completing a nationwide biological survey. Field biologists traveled from one location to the next, collecting everything from pocket mice to skunks. The agents would pick up leads from the locals, and one such tip led to the Finley ranch.
By now, Finley had cleaned the grizzly’s head by boiling it and scraping off the soft tissue and hair. The skull rested above the doorway of his home. The biologist made note of the specimen and mentioned it to his comrades back in Washington. He later wrote to Finley and asked that he send the skull to Washington, D.C., for further examination, which he did. The skull remained there for several months and was eventually returned after being assigned the scientific name Ursus horraeus texensis.
Another year went by, and the Washington researchers once again asked for the skull for continued study. Finley complied. Shortly thereafter, they asked to keep it in order to preserve it permanently as a one-of-a-kind specimen in the Smithsonian’s collection. Though Finley wanted it back, the officials in Washington politely refused to return it, citing its value as a “type” (first of its kind) specimen.
To this day, it remains in Washington. Alfred L. Gardner, wildlife biologist and curator at the National Museum of Natural History, retrieved the skull from storage to photograph it for this story.
C. Hart Merriam, the father of modern mammalogy, believed the skull represented a unique subspecies. Later researchers have suggested that the bear may have been a Sonoran grizzly that wandered north from Mexico. Since museum policy forbids invasive testing of one-of-a-kind specimens, a definitive test will never be done.
In a letter written to Finley in the early 1900s, a researcher assured him that the skull of Texas’ one and only grizzly bear would be kept “in perfect condition for future generations.” A hundred years later, some of Finley’s descendants are still a little irritated with the government for not returning the skull, but they can be comforted by the fact that the National Museum has kept its promise.