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Alaskan's enormous brown bear continues to grow on the Internet

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- It Was A Big Bear -- its front legs spanning 11 feet from claw tip to claw tip, its skull the size of a beer keg, its paws as big as a man's chest.

An Eielson Air Force Base airman shot the record-book grizzly during an October deer hunt in Prince William Sound.

''It's an exceptional bear,'' said master guide Joe Want of Fairbanks, a 40-year veteran of Kodiak Island, home to the biggest brown bears in North America. ''It's an understatement to say that it is a trophy of a lifetime.''

But perhaps equally amazing is how much the bear has grown in size and legend in just a few weeks' time on the Internet. Hundreds of people around Alaska and across the country are circulating photographs of the bear and the hunter who shot it. With each missive, the tale and the bear seem to grow.

By the time e-mail stories started reaching the Daily News in late November, the bear towered 12-feet, 6-inches tall and weighed more than 1,600 pounds. Another writer said the ferocious bear had charged the unsuspecting deer hunter, who emptied his gun, but shot the bear dead in the nick of time with his last shell.

Though this was indeed a big bear, those numbers and that sequence of events aren't right.

So how big was the bear, and what really happened?

Here's the story as told by the hunter, Theodore Winnen, a 22-year-old crew member of the 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.

Winnen and three hunting buddies were dropped off on Hinchinbrook Island in the heart of Prince William Sound by an air taxi on a cool, rainy Oct. 14 morning.

Hinchinbrook is a 165-square-mile island near Cordova with an estimated population of about 100 brown bears, giving it the distinction of harboring the highest density of bears of any island in the Sound, according to Dave Crowley, Cordova area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Four to six bears are killed by hunters on the island every year, though rarely one of more than 400 pounds.

Winnen wasn't there to hunt bear. Instead, he and his hunting buddies packed for a week of hunting for Sitka blacktail deer on the remote, wooded island. Winnen did, however, pick up a permit to shoot a bear just in case.

On day two of the group's hunt, the skies cleared at 8:30 a.m. Winnen and Eielson Staff Sgt. Jim Urban set out to follow a creek bed upstream looking for deer. Urban was carrying a .300-caliber Winchester Magnum. Winnen was carrying his significantly more powerful .338-caliber Winchester Magnum in case a bear crossed their path.

In the creek, they spotted a deep pool with 20 salmon circling.

''By this time, the ... run was over and the salmon were looking pretty nasty,'' Winnen said. ''We started thinking that we were looking at a bear's dinner plate.''

That got Winnen in what he calls ''bear mode.''

The two men continued following the creek upstream until they came to a small island ringed with thick brush. Some end-of-season blueberries clung to the surrounding brush. In the middle of the island was a spruce tree larger than what Winnen could fit his arms around. At the base of the tree were signs that an animal had tried to dig a hole.

About 9:30 a.m., Winnen glanced upstream.

Forty yards away was a big brown bear with all four paws in the creek, flipping over logs looking for salmon.

''He's a shooter,'' Urban said under his breath.

''So I started getting in the zone,'' Winnen said. ''When I am going to take an animal, I am really concentrating. We racked shells into our guns and took off our packs and left them by the tree.''

The hunters moved a few feet upstream. About halfway between them and the bear was a large fallen tree.

''I said, When the bear crawls over that log, he will present his vital areas and we'll take him,' '' Winnen recalled. ''I brought the rifle up to take a shot, but the bear moved over the log like it wasn't there.

''I thought, Oh c--p.' I didn't have a chance to get a shot off.''

As the bear kept coming along the creek, the two hunters momentarily lost sight of him in a thicket, so they retreated back to the big spruce.

''We were sitting there concentrating when, a few seconds later, he pops up right in front of us, about 10 yards away and he was coming toward us,'' Winnen said. ''I don't know if the wind was in our favor or what. We were dressed in camouflage. He might not have seen us.''

''I put the scope on him. I wanted to hit him in the chest, but all I seen was nothing but head.

''My partner said, 'Shoot! Shoot!''' Winnen said. ''I aimed for his left eye, but the bullet takes an arc and I hit about two inches low in the side of his muzzle and into his brain.

''He buckled backwards and raised his head like he was going to howl at the moon, but nothing came out,'' Winnen said. ''I put two more rounds in the vital area, then three more after that. Six total.

''We watched for a few minutes, I reloaded and Jim brought his gun up on him,'' Winnen said. ''I approached from the rear and poked him in the butt to see if he was going to jump, but he didn't move. He was dead.''

''It was amazing when I got close to him,'' Winnen said.

''I picked up the paw and it was like, good God.' The thing was as wide as my chest.''

The two hunters spent a fair amount of time getting photos of the bruin. One photo shows his statement is no exaggeration. The paw is almost as wide as the hunter's chest and sports 3- to 4- inch-long claws.

Master guide Want said he was impressed with Winnen's story.

''Sounds like he did everything perfectly,'' Want said. ''I can't overemphasize how many people screw that up, even after you explain it to them. After the bear drops, they stand up and pat themselves on the back, and the animal gets up and takes off while they are standing there.''

After the kill, Winnen and Urban spent six hours skinning the bear and trying to drag its hide and skull back to the Forest Service cabin they had rented. The meat was left behind because grizzly meat is generally considered inedible.

Winnen guesses the bear's hide weighed more than 200 pounds. They took turns carrying it, but eventually put it on a tarp and tried dragging it together. When they were within a half-mile of the cabin, they summoned their hunting partners, Eielson Staff Specs. Ron Lutrell and Jim Scheu, a flight chief based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

Winnen spent the next three days at the cabin working with his knife to scrape fat from the hide. He packed the hide with salt for the return trip to Fairbanks.

Once back, Winnen took the hide and skull to the state Department of Fish and Game to get it sealed, as required by law.

Unofficially, Fish and Game records show, the skull scored 28 and 8/16 inches. Skulls are scored for size by combining the width plus the length. The skull of Winnen's bear was 10 11/16 inches wide and 17 13/16 inches long. This is called a green score, which is the unofficial score until the skull dries and can be remeasured.

The Boone and Crockett Club, which uses a 16th-of-an-inch measurement system to keep records on the biggest animals shot in the world, requires that bear skulls dry for 60 days before an official measurement is made.

A tooth was pulled from the jaw of the skull by a state biologist so the bear can be aged. Biologist Crowley said he suspects the bear was 15 to 20 years old. He added that the bear was no stranger to guides who know the area.

''One of our local guides has been after it a couple of times,'' Crowley said. ''Its luck finally just ran out.''

Bears are hard to hunt on the brushy and heavily wooded island, Crowley said, because the season doesn't open until Oct. 15, after the salmon run is over. The bears have largely dispersed from salmon streams by then, making them harder to find.

The hide measures 10-feet, 6-inches from nose to tail. While it is impossible to know exactly how much the bear weighed, master guide Want has measured and weighed dozens of Kodiak brown bears over the years. Based on the measurements and information he got from Winnen, he suspects the bear weighed between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds.

By any standards, that's a world-class brown bear.

All brown bears taken with skulls that score over 28 inches are eligible for listing with Boone and Crockett, the official record keeper for North American trophy hunters.

In Alaska, the biggest brown bears are found on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula. The record Alaska brown bear -- killed on Kodiak Island in 1952 -- had a skull that scored 30 12/16. Only 19 bears have been shot with skulls that scored over 30 inches since the early 1900s, according to Boone and Crockett.

''Twenty-eight is the magic line,'' Want said. ''Anything over 28 inches has everyone sitting up and taking notice.''

The fact that Winnen's bear came from Prince William Sound makes it even more remarkable, Want added.

''His bear is exceptional. It's unbelievably unusual,'' the guide said. ''It's safe to say that it is more than double the average size of brown bear coming out of Prince William Sound.''

Between 1970 to 1999, about 600 male brown bears were killed in Prince William Sound, according to state Fish and Game records. Of those, only two had skulls that scored more than 28 inches, Want said. The vast majority had skulls that scored 22 to 23 inches. Bears with heads that size typically weigh 350 to 400 pounds, Want added.

Winnen is having the skull preserved and mounted on a plaque. The hide is with a taxidermist, being made into a rug.

''With the small rooms in base housing, it'll be more like wall-to-wall carpeting,'' Winnen said.

Meanwhile, the e-mails keep circulating. The genesis appears to have been a radio talk show in Fairbanks on which Winnen appeared. Photos from his hunt showed up later on the radio show's Web site. And that appears to have been what got the Internet humming.

Guide Want said, ''I can guarantee you, in a year or two, someone will tell him (Winnen) how big the bear was and it will be up to 1,800 pounds. And when he tries to correct them, they will call him a liar.'



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