By Chuck Carpenter
In the late 1950s my dad worked for the government, helping livestock producers with predator problems. We lived at a little place called Wolf Creek, Montana. Early one morning he received a phone call that a black bear had killed a lamb on a small ranch not too far from where we lived. He was loading up gear in his pickup when I walked by. “Do you want to go with me?” he asked.
We headed out and were soon headed up a gravel road into some smaller mountains. The country was beautiful – big meadows with timbered ridges and brush growing along the creeks.
The little ranch looked like a painting, with a small log house, a log barn and a couple of small log outbuildings. Neat, tight fences were around the yard and the pastures. There was a very manicured garden on one side of the house. There were a couple of horses in one pasture and a dozen cows with calves in another.
When we pulled into the driveway, an elderly man come out of the barn and his wife walked out of the house. After my dad introduced himself and me to the couple, the man told the story of the black bear problem to my dad. The couple’s granddaughter had been involved in the local 4-H club and had raised a lamb she called Freckles. After raising ole Freckles and taking him to the local fair, the girl discovered that somebody was going to make lamb chops out of him. That wasn’t going to work, so Grandpa paid a big price and bought Freckles and brought him home to his house to help mow the lawn. The granddaughter could see him when she came out to visit Grandpa and Grandma.
“Everything was going good until last night,” said the man. “I think it was a bear that come along and killed and ate part of Freckles.”
Dad and I followed the man around the house to the backyard. By one of the small outbuildings was what was left of ole Freckles. There were bear tracks along the fence and a big pile of bear scat not far away. Dad skinned out the carcass and looked at the bite marks and trauma. “Yep,” he said, “it’s a bear.”
We walked back to the pickup to get some gear. The grandma came out of the house with a plate of cookies and a can of orange pop. I was happy with this arrangement; she made really good cookies. While I was chomping them down, she asked me if I had ever seen a magpie? I told her I had. She said she had a pet magpie and she had taught him how to talk. “Would you like to see him?” she asked.
We walked around to the side of the house and there was a large cage on a stand with a big ole magpie setting on a perch. He turned his head, fluffed up his feathers, and looked at me. Grandma tapped her hand on the side of the cage and said, “Say hi, Charlie.” The ole magpie stood on one leg, then the other, cooked his head, and with an ole cracked voice just like Grandma, said, “ Watch it, watch it.”
Dad waved me over; I thanked the ole gal for the cookies and for showing me her magpie.
Dad had a bag with some gear in it and a #5 bear trap. This was back before the foot snares came along. The old man had some wooden panels he had made and we put them over the fence. Dad made a type of cubby with the panels and put the remains of the lamb toward the back, then placed a third panel on top and wired it all together. He bedded the trap in the front of the cubby and put in some guide sticks. He anchored the trap chain to a long fence post the old man had that was about seven inches in diameter and eight feet long.
We packed the gear back to the truck. Dad told the folks we would be back early in the morning and we headed home.
Dad woke me early the next day and we headed off bear trapping. When we pulled into the small ranch, everything was a wreck!
The bear had come back just before daylight. When he went to finish off Freckles, he stepped in the #5. He wasn’t a monster bear but not a small one either. My dad figured he weighed 225 to 250 pounds. As soon as he was caught, he jumped the fence and tore down about 20 feet of it. He then went along the fence and wrapped the trap chain around a power pole and chewed it off. It was hanging there by the lines. Then he dragged the eight-foot log through the garden and wiped half of it out and climbed up on the porch and tried to climb up on the roof. He had one front foot on the edge of the roof, the other in the trap. He was doing one-armed chin-ups and scratching on the screen door with his hind feet.
Grandma thinks my dad is knocking on the door so she opens it and there’s the bear hanging from the roof with one front foot. This ole gal screams bloody murder and scares the daylights out of Mr. Bear and he takes off around the house and in the process tips over ole Charley the magpie’s place of residence, setting it at a 45 degree angle. He makes another run across the garden and wipes the rest of it on the way out. Mr. Bear makes a run at the fence on the other side and hangs up there.
By now Grandma is screaming and yelling so loud Grandpa bails out of bed, grabs his trusty ole 30-30, runs out the back door in his red long-handles – flap in the back and all – and shoots Mr. Bear in the ribs.
By the time we get there, it looks like somebody bombed the place. Grandma is jabbering like a chipmunk, ole Grandpa is in shock, and Charley the magpie is jumping up and down on one leg then the other hollering, “Watch it, watch it, watch it.”
I don’t know if ole Charley could say anything but “watch it.” I never heard him say nothing but that.
Dad was kind of quiet for a while on the way home. Finally he looked at me, smirked, and said, “Catching a bear is easy, and controlling him after he’s caught ain’t.”
Chuck Carpenter, who now lives in Idaho, likes to hunt, fish and trap. He worked on a farm as a boy; then, as an adult, he took a job with the Department of Interior’s Animal Damage Control, now called USDA Wildlife Services. He ultimately became a district supervisor. He retired in 2011.