The Last Grizzlies of Oregon

by Ethan Shaw

Last time, we considered the grizzly’s historical distribution in Oregon. Today, we’ll look at the geography of the bear’s retreat in the state; the story of a latter-day Oregon grizzly of much renown; and the bear’s ghostly presence on the landscape in the form of place names.

The Last Grizzlies

A grizzly in Yellowstone National Park, one of the few remaining populations in the contiguous United States. (FWS)

In the face of Euro-American settlement, Oregon grizzlies seemed to retreat fairly steadily in the mid- to late-1800s to three redoubts: the Klamath Mountains (including the Siskiyous), the Southern Cascades, and the Blue/Wallowa Mountains (including Hells Canyon country).

By the 1910s, grizzly sightings in Oregon had become sparse and mainly restricted to the northeastern highlands. A brief in the May 6, 1915 edition of the Wallowa Chieftain recorded the killings of some of the few remaining grizzlies in the high country bridging the Joseph Uplands and Hells Canyon, which appears to have been a real stronghold for them:

Two of the largest bear skins seen in town in many months were brought in yesterday morning by E.M. Pratt. They were of mountain grizzlies and he killed them near the head of Chesnimnus Creek … Mr. Pratt, a homesteader, started after the bears after they had killed some beef cattle. One bear was downed only a few feet from him, as it was rushing at him. The other had 12 bullet holes in its hide.

Bailey, writing in 1936, gives a lonesome inventory of the grizzly’s status over the preceding decade or so:

In 1924 and 1925 the Forest Service reported 1 grizzly bear on each of the Cascade and Siskiyou National Forests, and in 1931 2 and in 1932 1 on the Wallowa Forest, and in 1933 1 on the Willamette.

Those Forest Service estimates notwithstanding, the last officially documented grizzly bear in Oregon was killed along Chesnimnus Creek by a federal trapper on September 14, 1931. According to Jerry Gildemeister’s Bull Trout, Walking Grouse and Buffalo Bones: Oral Histories of Northeast Oregon Fish and Wildlife, however, sheepherders knew of a pair of grizzlies in the Minam drainage on the far western side of the Wallowa Mountains in 1937 and 1938; one of these bears was shot1

Hells Canyon from Hat Point: former haunt of grizzlies, and site of scattered unsubstantiated post-extirpation sightings. (Sarah West)

Of course, the very last grizzly of Oregon probably escaped the notice of humankind altogether. Whether he or she died in the remote plateau forests flanking the Northeast Oregon canyonlands or the brushy breaks of the Siskiyous—or someplace else entirely—we can only offer a vague, if heartfelt, toast.

Meanwhile, Hells Canyon country has continued to cough up the occasional grizzly rumor over the decades, although it should be noted that many of the black bears here are cinnamon-phase and thus easily confused with their heftier cousins. In Oregon Desert Guide, Andy Kerr reports an alleged sighting from 1979 along Steep Creek a few miles from Homestead2, and Gildemeister’s oral histories mention possible grizzly sign noted by a wildlife biologist in 1989 near Smooth Hollow, right along the Snake River below Hat Point.

The “Terror of the Siskiyous”

Easily the best-known grizzly in Oregon—albeit a beast shared with California—was Old Reelfoot (also called “Clubfoot”), a huge boar that roamed the Siskiyou Crest and adjoining Southern Cascades toward the close of the 19th century. By then, Euro-American alteration of the landscape was well underway and the few remaining grizzlies occasionally resorted to preying on the plentiful livestock at hand. Reelfoot’s stock-killing career in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon allegedly spanned decades, although, as Tracy and Storer note in California Grizzly, “the exploits of local grizzlies for a half century may have been ascribed to the one bear.” Those authors note his earliest mention dates back to 1846, when he “was alleged to have stampeded horses of Frémont’s expedition in southern Oregon,” though connecting that grizzly to the one killed near Pilot Rock in 1890—the one stuffed and displayed up and down the West Coast as the notorious Siskiyou Reelfoot—overstretches belief.

Old Reelfoot, 1890s (The Life and Death of Reelfoot)

Like many a “Clubfoot” bear, Reelfoot gained his name from a lame front right paw he wrenched free (so they say) from a Klamath River-area trap in the late 1850s. His injury made for a distinctive skewed track, a calling card many Ashland-area ranchers came to know well.

Though some claimed Old Reelfoot ranged as far southwest as Humboldt Bay on California’s redwood coast, most accounts seem to place his main range as the Siskiyous and adjoining portions of the Southern Cascades. A biography of Reelfoot written by George Wright—the nephew of William Wright who, with the teenager Purl Bean, finally killed the great bruin—claimed the bear’s heartland was “in the wild canyon region of the Siskiyou Mountains in the neighborhood of Pilot Rock, and thence eastward to Mount Pitt [Mount McLoughlin].” Pilot Rock, that striking knob at the eastern end of the Siskiyou Crest, appears to have been the center of Reelfoot’s territory; some believed he denned in the vicinity, as he was often observed there in the spring. (This website3, maintained by Ben Truwe, provides a wealth of information on Reelfoot.)

Foothill chaparral and woodland along the flanks of Mule Mountain in the Siskiyous; grizzlies frequented such habitats. (Ethan Shaw)

The grizzly was renowned for his massiveness and power. An Ashland-based shepherd, J.D. Williams, watched the bear attack a herd of cattle near Bald Mountain in the spring of 1882; after killing a calf and its mother, the grizzly was set upon by a big bull, which he ultimately dispatched after a fierce contest.

Reelfoot was just as infamous for his craftiness. Many hunters tried to trap or shoot him—not least after a coalition of Oregon-California cattlemen offered a bounty of $2700—but he proved relentlessly elusive. According to local lore, he rarely returned to a carcass after his initial feeding, and the general ruggedness of the Siskiyous and their heavy timber and shrublands gave the grizzly quite the fastness to hole up in.

Time finally out for Old Reelfoot ran out in the spring of 1890. In March, Wright and Bean had nearly taken the bear: They’d found where he had been dining on the carcasses of a slew of horses that had succumbed to a high-country snowstorm, tracked him down to the vicinity of Bald Mountain, and pursued him as he floundered through the heavy snowpack—but then their snowshoes gave out. Then, in early April, the two killed him a few miles from Pilot Rock; conflicting reports place the event either in Wildcat Gulch on the California side or the canyon of Camp Creek in Oregon.

Reelfoot’s death made national news. Reports credited decades of beef depredations to the bear, claimed his carcass yielded loads of bullets (“nearly a quart,” Tracy and Storer say), and marveled at his size. A Jacksonville Democratic Times report from April 17, 1890 read, “[Reelfoot] is thought to have weighed 1,400 pounds, and the hunters displayed great coolness in facing that amount of concentrated angry grizzly bear.” Other accounts put his weight at closer to 1,800 pounds—even beyond a ton. (In 1893, the Dalles Times-Mountaineer added some more fat rolls to the Siskiyou grizzly for good measure, claiming “this largest bear ever captured on the Pacific coast” tipped the scales at 3,200 pounds.) Even allowing for the exaggerations typical of those days, Reelfoot appears to have been a gloriously big bear—well representative, it seems, of the hefty proportions California grizzlies attained.

Stuffed and mounted in Ashland, Old Reelfoot was exhibited across California and as far north as Portland and the Dalles; some accounts suggest the carcass made it to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Nobody’s entirely sure what happened to the display, but indications are that it was destroyed in a fire.

Grizzly Place Names

There are more than two dozen “grizzly” place names sprinkled across Oregon. Their distribution seems to reflect historical grizzly hotspots: By a healthy margin, the majority of the locales are in the southwest, with quite a few in northeastern Oregon, too. But there’s also a Grizzly Peak (and Creek, and Flat) a few miles southwest of Mount Jefferson, a Grizzly Slough along the Lower Columbia, and a Grizzly Ridge in the central Coast Range near Cape Perpetua.

Granted, not all of these place names apparently had an actual bear as their inspiration: According to Lewis McArthur’s classic Oregon Geographic Names, for instance, Grizzly Mountain in Crook County—an Ochoco spur that’s a prominent landmark from the Deschutes-Umatilla Plateau—is so called because of its “grizzled color and not because of any adventure with a grizzly bear.”4

Grizzly Peak, named for the great Siskiyou grizzly Old Reelfoot.

Others, though, do stem from ursine lore. Grizzly Peak on the east side of the Bear Creek Valley, Ashland’s signal summit, is named for Old Reelfoot, who probably foraged on its basalt-ribbed slopes more than once. Oliver Applegate, who (Vernon Bailey relates) used to shoot bears as well as wolves and pumas from scaffolds in the Siskiyou rangelands, also killed a grizzly in December 1874 on Mountain Mahogany Ridge north of the Swan Lake Valley; since then, the ridge has been called Grizzly Butte (or Hill). Bear Flat—just east of Grizzly Ridge near Imnaha—was, according to McArthur, named “because Ben Johnson and Waldo Chase killed several bears there, among them two grizzlies.”

Some other specific locales aren’t named for the grizzly, but have some connection to it. Bailey cites a 1918 edition of Oregon Sportsman recounting a fight between two grizzlies on Hoxie Prairie near Medford, witnessed sometime in the preceding decades by one Fred Barneburg. Because of Louis Labonte, we can see spectral grizzlies in the farmland of French Prairie. And on account of the Molalla trickster tale, we can draw a mythological association between Mount Hood (Oregon’s loftiest peak) and the great bear (its mightiest carnivore).

Next up: musings on the grizzly’s former ecology in Oregon, and some final thoughts.


[1] Gildemeister, Jerry. Bull Trout, Walking Grouse and Buffalo Bones: Oral Histories of Northeast Oregon Fish and Wildlife. La Grande, Oregon: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, 1992.

[2] Kerr, Andy. Oregon Desert Guide. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2000.

[4] McArthur, Lewis A. and Lewis L. McArthur. Oregon Geographic Names. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003.


Photo Credits
Header image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service by Erwin & Peggy Bauer