Colorado’s Last Grizzly Bear

A Chapter Closes

In September 1979, Ed Wiseman, a Colorado hunting guide, crossed paths with a grizzly bear during an expedition near the headwaters of the Navajo River. Wiseman was attacked and mauled, but while he was down he managed to fatally wound the bear by hand using an arrow. Severely wounded, Wiseman spent a frigid night in the high country until help arrived the next day. He was airlifted by helicopter to Alamosa, where he spent the next month in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Because grizzly bears were protected by law, a seven-month investigation into the incident ensued until it was determined that Wiseman had acted in self-defense. The case was officially dropped when he passed a polygraph test in April 1980.

Besides the incredible story of Wiseman’s encounter, a major surprise to people was that he was attacked by a grizzly bear and not a black bear, the other bear species native to Colorado. Grizzly bears had been considered extirpated, or locally extinct, in Colorado since 1951. One of the suspected last grizzly bears had been killed 28 years earlier near the same area. Grizzlies have not been sighted in Colorado since that day. The bear came to the Museum in June 1980. The specimen consists of the skull, the skeleton, except for the right front leg and scapula, and a beautiful grizzled hide. The adult female weighed 350 to 400 pounds and was estimated to be 16 to 20 years old, based on examination of her worn-down teeth. The skeleton is riddled with calcified spurs, signs of osteoarthritis.

The grizzly specimen has provided further insight into the bear’s history. A 1999 study of the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the bear’s hair and bones—a method to figure out what an animal eats—suggested its diet was more than 90 percent meat. A 2006 study, which also examined grizzly bears from other museum collections, showed the bear carried a unique genetic signature found only in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Grizzly bears, along with other large mammals such as bison and wolves, are iconic western animals that have been dancing with extinction over the last 200 years. You could argue that Colorado’s last grizzly bear represents the outcome of tension between humans and wild animals and a loss of unbridled freedom in the West, all at the expense of progress.

John R. Demboski, PhD

Vice President of Science

Andrew Doll, MS

Zoology Collections Manager

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