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Letter from Wild West - February 2010

By Gregory Lalire 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: December 16, 2009 
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Wild Horses and Grizzly Bears I Have Known
Actually, we have only been quite distant acquaintances

Lions and wild horses and grizzly bears! Oh, my! The February Wild West features those large creatures. Actually, I'm lyin'. No lions, not even mountain lions (and today 5,000-plus of those mighty felines roam California alone compared to zero grizzlies), lurk on the pages beyond. It's just that I'm a fan of the 110-year-old Cowardly Lion, who unfortunately never had the courage to go to Kansas or anywhere else west of Oz. No further mention shall be made of him or any other lion. We can, however, truly boast of a hoof-pounding cover tale about horses gone wild—specifically mustangs of the Old Southwest—and the enterprising adventurers who traded them. And we offer a claw-and-paw story about grizzlies hunted, tamed, trained and befriended by a California mountain man with a wonderfully bizarre plan and a most appropriate handle—Grizzly Adams. Should you need more than mustangs and grizzlies to put the "wild" in your Wild West, we also present a Valentine's Day shootout between law lovers and haters, a vigilante-style hanging by sober soldiers and a dose of frontier justice dished out by a brave young Missouri lawyer to horse-enamored outlaw Jesse James.

So let's make a slight adjustment: Jesse James and wild horses and grizzly bears! Oh, my! Yes, Dorothy of Kansas (near the Missouri border), Little Debbie of Wyoming and Donna of Montana, I confess the aforementioned creatures conjure up scary images in my Eastern Seaboard mind. Unlike our featured lawyer from the Show Me State, I no sooner would have tried to sue Mr. James than challenge him to slap leather or deny him all the editorial space he wanted ("You sure do write good, Jess!"). As for wild horses, I once admired them from afar during a trip to Wyoming but had no desire to touch their free-flowing manes. After all, they are big beasts, and they are wild, and I've seen too many stampeding horses in B Westerns. I know I should worry less about how dangerous mustangs could be and more about the dangers modern mustangs face on federal lands and in BLM holding facilities. But as someone who hasn't mounted up in nearly 50 years, since being kicked in a tender spot by a very tame mare, the best I can do is marvel at those who adopt wild horses, the same way I marvel at smoke jumpers, tightrope walkers and lion (whoops!) tamers. Most people will better relate to my fear of grizzly bears. In my Montana days, I stumbled on several of them in the wild (exactly how many I can't say, as usually I ran before I could determine whether they might only be black bears). My more knowledgeable outdoorsy companions all told me, "A man can't outrun a griz!" I didn't argue with them, but I always thought to myself (as my legs churned), Yeah, but I can outrun you guys. Sorry, Donna.

In the Very Old West—we're talking pre–Jesse James, before the dawn of badman or even good man—things were even scarier. Some 55 million years ago, ancestors of the horse inhabited America (yes, they are natives), and during the Pleistocene Epoch (roughly 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago) ancient horses were dodging many predators, including, you guessed it, big bad bears (paleontologists have unearthed Pleistocene grizzly fossils in Oklahoma). It was about 10,000 years ago that horses galloped into extinction in the Western Hemisphere. Says our expert writer Dan Flores: "Nobody knows why horses became extinct in the Americas, especially when they comprised up to 40 percent of the biomass of grazing animals. It's one of the great mysteries. Early human overkill, disease epidemics and an extraterrestrial impact (most recently) are all proposed as possibilities. The truth is, we still don't know." Grizzly bears, though, held their ground—prospered in fact. "When the Spaniards returned horses to the West, and horses escaped to go wild, they would have become 'reacquainted' with lots of species still around from the Pleistocene," says Flores. "So after the 17th century, bears and horses would have resumed their old relationship, with grizzlies scavenging dead horses and maybe occasionally catching the unlucky colt. I think both those animals were and still are charismatic Western species with much romance attached to them." OK, OK. But romance can be scary, too.



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