Old Ephraim's Last Stand

Civilization is pushing Old Ephraim — the American Grizzly Bear — ever closer to extinction.

| March/April 1985

  • Old Ephraim, American grizzly bear
    "Old Ephraim" was a term of respect for grizzly bears among mountain men of the early 19th century.
    Photo by Alan Carey
  • Old Ephraim, American grizzly bear
    A grizzly on the hunt.
    Alan Carey

  • Old Ephraim, American grizzly bear
  • Old Ephraim, American grizzly bear

When Montana's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist A.B. "Bud" Guthrie Jr. penned The Big Sky — his classic story of the early 1800's fur trade era and of the Indians and mountain men who lived it — he had a definite message in mind: It is our nature to unknowingly destroy the things we love.

Simply by exercising the unrestrained freedom available to them, the mountain men of Guthrie's novel (and their real-life counterparts) helped destroy the wild country that made their idyllic lifestyle possible: They trapped out the beaver and made serious dents in the populations of many other native American creatures, "civilized" the Indians, and blazed trails for the multitudes of immigrants who would follow in the coming years. After the harm was irrevocably done, only then did they stop to look around in confused horror and notice that most of the wild, unfettered frontier they so loved had disappeared.

Fortunately, our forebears didn't consume it all, and even in 1985 America still has a few living symbols of the West as it was when the land was young. And foremost among those symbols is Ursus arctos horribilis — he whom the mountain men referred to respectfully as "Old Ephraim" — the American grizzly bear.

It has been estimated that when Lewis and Clark made their historic trek across wilderness America in the first years of the 1800's, there were as many as 100,000 grizzly bears roaming the unsettled and unspoiled country on the afternoon side of the Mississippi River. Today, the big bruin has lost some 99% of his original range, and his numbers have dwindled to a remnant 800 or so survivors holding forth in small, isolated populations scattered through the mountainous states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, with a few, very few, individuals roaming the mountains of Washington.

Of that estimated 800 remaining grizzlies, Montana boasts approximately 75% of the total — along with a corresponding bear's share of grizzly-related problems. Among those problems are sometimes violent encounters between humans and bears in tourist packed Glacier and Yellowstone national a parks, Park Service mismanagement, unprincipled big-game outfitters, habitat lost to development, sheep grazing on public lands, poaching, and legal hunting.

Who Needs Bears?

But should America — you and I — even care whether the grizzly bear survives in the lower 48 states? After all, there's a healthy wild population of the big bruin in Alaska, and a sufficient number of grizzlies are incarcerated in zoos around the world to assure, at least for the foreseeable future, that the species won't totally disappear. What's more, there has been an increasing amount of grizzly-related violence in and near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks of late, prompting a spirited and complex "Are our national parks for bears or for people?" argument.

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