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Grizzly Bears

Grizzly Bear in a field
Grand Teton NPS
Public Domain Mark 1.0
Grizzly Bear

I recently saw a reference to the movie Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring Richard Harris. The movie was loosely based on the story of Hugh Glass. Glass, a member of a fur party, was badly mauled by a grizzly bear in August of 1823 somewhere near what is now the Shadehill Reservoir a few miles south of Lemmon, South Dakota. Lemmon, of course, is located on the North Dakota-South Dakota state line southeast of Hettinger. Hugh Glass was left for dead, but somehow survived, and managed to find his way to Fort Kiowa near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, to avenge his abandonment.

We don’t give it much thought these days, but grizzly bears historically ranged across most of North Dakota. Art Bailey, in his A Biological Survey of North Dakota (1926), noted that grizzly bears were apparently common over much of the state. He quotes from Alexander Henry’s journals that in 1800, grizzly bears were common in the Devils Lake area, not common in the Red River Valley -- but more numerous in the Hair Hills (what we now call the Pembina Hills).

Bailey also noted that the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1805) wounded a grizzly bear south of present-day Bismarck-Mandan. They also saw grizzly bears and their tracks upstream from the mouth of the Little Missouri River, and near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

Bailey also cites several other observations of grizzly bear in the state including that of Prince Maximilian observing grizzly near the confluence of the Little Missouri River and the Missouri River in 1833, Audubon noting that grizzlies were apparently common around Fort Union in 1843, Roosevelt reporting a large bear was eating his cattle in the badlands in 1900, and several grizzly bears were reportedly killed in the Killdeer Mountain area between 1864 and 1870.

I have not seen any information about the last documented grizzly in the state -- but they used to be here. So, as you travel about, particularly in the wooded areas such as those along the rivers and large lakes, give some thought as to what things must have been like back when grizzlies roamed the region.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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