Enormous, orchard-fed bear becomes a legend in death


In life, the large black bear had simply been a nuisance, feasting on enough Cowiche and Tieton fruit during harvest season that orchardists had called out state wildlife officers on several occasions.

In death, though, the bear is practically legendary.

Since he was struck and killed two weeks ago by an off-duty police officer on his way home, photos of its rotund body have been making the rounds.

“My phone was ringing off the hook,” said Tieton taxidermist Ric Shirrod, who lives less than 2 miles from where the bear was struck on Naches Tieton Road, less than a mile beyond the top of the grade. “When something happens like thisin your neck of the woods, people want to know about it and wanted to know if I was doing anything with it.”

When Shirrod was emailed photographs of the bear, he said, “My first thought was, ‘That’s a big bear. It looks like a Volkswagen Beetle.’”

Shirrod’s first thought was that the bear might weigh 300 pounds. Maybe 350. “But bears are hard to judge,” he said.

Morgan Grant’s first guess was 350 or more.

“It was just a big, beautiful bear,” said Grant, a state wildlife enforcement officer who came eye-to-eye with the animal while searching for it in an orchard in hopes of trapping and removing it.

“I’m betting I wasn’t 25 yards from him, and he was just sitting on his bottom looking at me, like he had this really big-ol’ ear-to-ear smile, like he was saying, ‘Hey, sorry, I’m not going to get in your trap today.’ And I sure wasn’t about to go over and try to wrestle him.”

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Grant described it as “this bulky, hulky, cool-looking bear. He looked like a real athletic, muscled bear.”

Grant’s face-to-face moment with the bear was roughly six weeks before its abrupt demise, during which time it apparently continued to feast on hundreds of apples and pears from the area’s numerous orchards.

So … 400 pounds? Maybe 450? A bear like that would do some damage to any vehicle hitting it, which it did just past midnight on the early morning of Nov. 11, when it attempted to cross the road from one orchard to another. At the last second, it entered into the headlights of an off-duty police officer on his way home.

The impact, said the officer, who asked not to be identified, “stopped me in my tracks.”

The bear was killed, and the front end of the officer’s pickup — a large Ford model, barely a year old — was pretty well mangled. “They might have to total it,” the officer said, “because the frame might be bent.”

The bear bent the frame? That’s a big bear. Maybe … 500 pounds?

“He was big. He was fat,” said Capt. Rich Mann of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who had seen a photograph Tieton Police Chief Jeff Ketchum snapped of the bear’s carcass beside the road on the morning of Nov. 11. “He was well-fed for winter.”

The Yakima County road worker assigned to haul the bear’s body away — to the dump, because the potential for trichinosis in bear meat makes it problematic as a giveaway to a food bank or shelter — was a longtime outdoorsman who had hunted and taken 500-pound trophy bears before.

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His first thought: “My God, that’s a big bear.”

When he lifted a paw to try to pull it from the ditch into the road, he couldn’t move it an inch.

Two road crew members ultimately hauled it away in a backhoe trailer to the Terrace Heights Landfill. The rig was weighed on the scales going in and again on the way out. The only thing in it: the bear.

The difference between the before-and-after weights: an even 700 pounds.

Nancy Hartman, a Yakima County road maintenance program representative, saw the copy of the landfill ticket. “Seven hundred pounds?” Hartman said. “That’s crazy.”

“A 700-pound bear around here? Unheard of,” said the road worker who had been dispatched to pick up the bear.

“It’s a big bear, but historically, that’s just hard to believe,” said Shirrod, who said he’s only taken in two 500-pound bears in 13 years as a taxidermist.

The heaviest black bears ever weighed in the Lower 48 — meaning they were killed first — were an 880-pounder in North Carolina and an 876-pounder in Minnesota. A large black bear killed a century ago in Arizona had a reported weight of 902 pounds that was apparently disputed.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have a record for the heaviest Washington bear. Nor do hunting trophy experts, for whom “largest bear” records are based not on weight, but on skull size.

And there was no way anybody was going to be able to get a tape measure around the bear’s girth; after all those months of pilfering pears, that’s where most of the weight was.

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“He was probably good for 12 months of hibernation,” said Mann, the enforcement captain.

“He looked like a barrel with four stubby little legs and a head stuck on it.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>