535-pound black bear can't climb tree. Can you?

George Thwaites • Jan 14, 2007 at 12:24 PM

I'd like to issue kudos to Bryan Stevens at one of our sister newspapers, The Erwin Record, for his recent story about a black bear harvested by Erwin resident Daniel Ray this past November.

One of our news editors turned me on to this story. It's a good one.

Ray, as it turns out, bagged one of the largest black bears on record in the state of Tennessee.

Ray has been a lifelong deer and coon hunter, but this was his very first bear hunt. The dogs that cornered the trophy bear were owned by his friend, Steve Shelton. Ricky Thomas, Chad Tipton and Jack Tipton also participated in the chase.

The big male bruin, taken near Temple Hill on Nov. 14, weighed in at 535 pounds. It took five shots to bring down the bear. It took 22 people to help Ray carry it out of the woods. You wouldn't believe the size of the head on that thing.

Now stop for a moment and let it sink in.

If you've ever gone fly fishing alone in remote wooded sections of Unicoi County - as I have - the idea of a 535-pound black bear sharing the solitude lends an entirely different flavor to the expedition.

According to Stevens' story, the bear wasn't treed at the end of the hunt because it was simply too big to climb a tree.

That's good to know.

According to a TWRA wildlife biologist cited in Stevens' story, there have been bears bagged in Unicoi County weighing between 600 and 650 pounds.

Black bears, by and large, are not as prone to belligerent outbursts as their much-larger grizzly cousins. You'd tend to think that extraordinarily big-bodied black bears get that way by learning to steer clear of human beings.

Maybe. Maybe not. There probably aren't many critters in Northeast Tennessee large enough to challenge the dominance of a 500-pound bear. Unless it's a 600-pound black bear. Or a mean cow.

In my thinking, that fact alone is ample reason for all of us - hunters and non-hunters alike - to applaud folks like Daniel Ray. Every bear chased by dogs doesn't get treed. Every bear treed by dogs doesn't get bagged. But every bear chased or treed learns the important lesson that human beings are annoying creatures that are best avoided.

• While we're on the subject of toothy critters: This week, I heard another second-hand report of a cougar sighting in our region.

Cougar sightings have tended to outnumber Bigfoot sightings in both Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. There has been as much physical evidence for one as the other.

It is not utterly implausible, however - the cougar sighting, that is.

Last year, a VDGIF game warden told me that, officially, there are no documented cougar populations in the commonwealth of Virginia. But he also noted that some of the witnesses he's spoken to have been so credible that he refuses to insult their intelligence by implying that they misidentified a bobcat.

Where I'm from, people are familiar with bobcats. Frequently, they're more familiar than they want to be.

For a little while, there was even a little conspiracy theory circulating in parts of Southwest Virginia that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting clandestine cougar releases. There is, of course, no evidence to support this.

A more plausible theory advanced to me by a state wildlife professional was that some of these cougar sightings may be attributed to captive animals that escaped their owners. I've been told that the undocumented possession of dangerous wild animals - including cougars - is not as uncommon as one might imagine.

Heck, they're all cute when they're little.

George Thwaites is a sports and outdoors writer for the Times-News. E-mail him at gthwaites@timesnews.net.

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