Old Ephraim, The Infamous Northern Utah Grizzly on Wild About Utah

Aug 15, 2017

It took all of Frank Clark’s seven steel-ball cartridges to bring down Old Ephraim, the infamous Grizzly Bear that, for many years in the early 20th century, plagued the shepherds of the Northern Wasatch Mountains. 

The date was August 21st, 1923, when Clark, a Logan Canyon sheepman, was roused from his slumber by the gruffs and bellows of the half-ton brown bear stuck in a trap that Clark had set down in the wallows the bear frequented. Hours later, after a thrilling chase and several charges from the massive, male Grizzly, the hunt was over and the last of Utah’s Great Bears had departed.

The Land of Deseret was once home to a robust population of Grizzly Bears. Indeed, present-day Utah sat very near the geographic center of their historical home range which once extended as far south as Central Mexico and eastward into the prairies of Minnesota and other midwestern states. When the Mormon Pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley, the surrounding mountains- and a majority of other ranges throughout the West- still harbored many Grizzlies. In fact, Brigham Young himself, along with early LDS leader Heber C. Kimball, was once chased up a cliff by an angry mother Grizz protecting her cubs.

However, between the Saints’ arrival to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and Frank Clark’s killing of Old Ephraim in 1923, the Grizzly Bear was eliminated from 95% of its original home range, including Utah. Today, grizzlies roam a mere 2% of their historical range in the contiguous United States, driven from all but a few remote wildernesses in the far reaches of the Northern Rockies. As more and more settlers moved westward across the New Frontier in the latter decades of the 19th century into the early 20th century, competition for resources became stiff between humans and their ursine counterparts. As apex predators, grizzly bears pursue many of the same foods we humans do, including domestic stock, like sheep. For this reason, it’s clear why local stockmen held Old Ephraim in such contempt. What made him so notorious, though, was his remarkable intelligence.

Grizzlies are famously smart and are even thought to possess self-awareness. Their potential for understanding is comparable to that of the higher primates in the Animal Kingdom, which stands to reason why they are such cunning hunters. Grizzly Bears have even been known to cover their own tracks or conceal themselves with trees and rocks when either hunting or hiding, giving biologists reason to believe that these incredible animals are even capable of forethought. Perhaps, that’s why it took Frank Clark over a decade to even get a good look at Old Ephraim, much less a clear shot at him. The mighty grizzly had time and again removed Clark’s traps from his wallowing holes, discarding them elsewhere without even setting them off. However, despite his amazing intelligence and ability to adapt- or, perhaps because of them- Old Ephraim ultimately met his end that August morning in 1923.

Even after having, quote, “sworn eternal vengeance on bears,” Frank Clark ultimately professed regret for having to kill Old Ephraim; and it’s a sentiment that’s well-circulated and gaining steam here in the west, now nearly a century removed from Ephraim’s death. In 1975, as a result of their dismal population levels in the contiguous United States and high mortality rates even in protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park, the Grizzly Bear was listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. As of June 2017, however, that listing was revoked for the populations in and around Yellowstone National Park due to the Bear’s remarkable recovery from a mere 136 individuals in 1975 to approximately 700 today. It seems we have begun to amend our relationship with these animals; but there is more to be done in the interest of Grizzly Bears. Several recovery and reintroduction plans are currently being considered, and reflect a brighter future for Grizzly Bears in the lower 48. But, what about here in Utah?

The Great Bear’s return to the Beehive state is entirely possible but, as the Ogden Standard Examiner reported early last year, not very likely. “Although grizzlies are established in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming,” the article states, “Utah is not a part of the government’s recovery plan for the animal.” There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is the relatively high population densities adjacent to the best of Utah’s potential Grizzly habitat. Right now, there are just too many people for the bears to be able to ramble unimpeded by the things and interests of humans. “But that’s not to say that some rogue bear might not roam across state lines one day,” states the Standard’s article.

I, for one, hope they make their way back.