Idaho History

Bears and Southern Idaho have rich history together

Bears have long caused commotions in Idaho, as in 2007, when a yearling black bear made its way into a tree at East Junior High in Boise.
Bears have long caused commotions in Idaho, as in 2007, when a yearling black bear made its way into a tree at East Junior High in Boise. Idaho Statesman file

“BEAR in TOWN” read the headline of a story in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on Sept. 26, 1868. The bear had been discovered in a vegetable garden, and quite a crowd had given chase. When last seen, the bear had crossed Main Street and was heading for the hills by way of Crane’s Gulch.

In June 1870, the paper noted that “a drove of hogs owned by Mr. James Donnell on the Upper Weiser were attacked last Monday night by bears, and many were killed. Mr. Donnell has lost 25 hogs this season by these brutes.” That fall the bears were still making “terrible raids on the porcine family,” along the Weiser River, leading farmers to get together and offer a bounty of $75 for each bear killed.

“Another ‘Bar’ ” was the headline when farmer Jerome B. Walling’s teenage sons, Nelson and Enos, captured a young cinnamon bear near the family farm. It had been run down and lassoed. “The boys are training the ‘critter’ for a ‘bar dance’ this winter,” noted the Statesman. The cinnamon bear is a subspecies of the common black bear but is considered by many to be just a color phase. Grizzly bears were less common than black bears in Idaho in 1870 and are now found only in the North Idaho panhandle and around Yellowstone National Park.

In September 1877, the Statesman had some fun at the expense of James A. Miller, an Upper Squaw Valley schoolteacher, recently arrived from Iowa. “He had heard a good deal of bear talk in that neighborhood, and anxious to have a little sport and get his name up as a great bear hunter, sailed out with two trusty dogs in search of bruin. He had not gone far before his companions scented his game in a dense thicket of brush. Miller crawled into the brush thinking he would get a shot at his bearship unawares. Bruin, however, who happened to be a good-sized cinnamon bear, smelled Miller first and made straight for him. … In his hasty retreat the school teacher stubbed his toe and went sprawling. Bruin lit upon him like a cat on a mouse and gave him a bite on the hip, by which time the dogs were nipping at the bear’s rear end. They held him at bay long enough for Miller to get off the shot that wound up his bear-ship’s career.”

If the brave dogs hadn’t come to the rescue, the bear would certainly have ended the teacher’s career.

A prospector on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River had an encounter with a grizzly bear in July 1881 that could have proved fatal. He shot the bear five times, but it kept coming and inflicted serious injuries before it collapsed. The man showed remarkable courage and stamina by walking 170 miles to Bellevue and a doctor’s care.

Meanwhile, in Boise City, William James was “dealing out some delicious bear meat to his customers this week. As Bruin is getting very tame this year, he promises a continuous supply if the demand keeps up.”

A bear that probably had become too tame was spotted by a soldier on sentry duty at Boise Barracks in September 1885. The bear climbed a tree and was soon surrounded by soldiers who killed it with a barrage of rifle fire. “He fell a victim to his indiscretion in venturing into the stronghold of the U.S.A.,” said the paper. “Public interest seems to be equally divided between baseball and bears,” noted the Statesman that September. “The boys don’t know whether to play the one or hunt the other.”

Less than a month before Idaho became a state on July 3, 1890, bears were a common sight in Downtown Boise — not on the streets but in saloons. “There is quite a menagerie in the rear of the saloon, corner Main and Ninth Street. It consists of three bears of different ages. They are owned by a man of the name of Roy, formerly a soldier at the post, but now in John Lemp’s employ.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email