On Monday, 40 years ago, Ed Wiseman killed the last known grizzly bear in Colorado.
“It still amazes me the attack fascinates people,” Wiseman told The Durango Herald in an interview over the phone from his home in Marion, Iowa. “I suppose it’s because it was a freak of nature that I was able to survive.”
Wiseman, now 86, left Southwest Colorado for Iowa in the early 2000s, and ever since has been working in the sporting goods department at the local Walmart, a world away from the landscape where he almost died in a hand-to-claw combat with one of North American’s fiercest animals.
He estimates he’s told the harrowing tale hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
Over the years, however, his recount of how the last grizzly in the state died has been the subject of intense scrutiny and skepticism, despite the fact he was cleared of any potential wrongdoing after a six-month federal investigation and two clean polygraph tests.
At its core, the public’s doubt likely lies in the fact only he knows what happened in the woods that day.
“I’ve fought that from the time of the attack,” Wiseman said of the accusations that he is lying. “It’s been, to a degree, a thorn in my side, if you will. I understand it’s kind of a far-fetched story for anyone to believe, but that’s what happened.”
Sept. 23, 1979, was the last day of archery elk season.
Wiseman, then 46, was a full-time outfitter, leading Kansas native Mike Niederee out in the San Juan Wilderness – a remote expanse of mountains and forests south of Pagosa Springs, near the Colorado-New Mexico line.
Around 5 p.m., as the day was getting late, the pair split up to increase their chance of finding an elk.
Wiseman, stalking the forest on his own, recalls first being startled by a noise. He looked up and saw a 400-pound grizzly bear, 30 yards away in full charge, bearing down on him. Instinctively, Wiseman yelled at the bear, but it showed no signs of stopping.
He raised his bow to shoot, but the grizzly kept its stride, knocking the bow out of Wiseman’s hands and jumping on top of him. It first went after his lower right leg, shaking him like a rag doll. In the moment, Wiseman didn’t register any pain or smells – just the sound of flesh ripping apart.
The grizzly then went after Wiseman’s right shoulder. He crawled into the fetal position to protect his vital organs, but realized if he played dead much longer, he was going to die. Through the bloody mayhem, Wiseman spotted one of his arrows on the ground, picked it up and started to stab upward.
It’s almost unbelievable, he admits, but Wiseman’s first stab hit the bear in its jugular vein, his second near the heart. Miraculously, the bear sauntered off a couple yards, layed down and put her head on her front paws. She never got up, and there went Colorado’s last grizzly.
The attack was only the beginning of Wiseman’s troubles that day. After the fight, a rescue mission to get the severely wounded Wiseman off the mountain took all night, with him enduring near-freezing temperatures. Eventually, a helicopter arrived at 7 a.m. the next day and he was taken to a hospital.
Wiseman spent 31 days recovering from multiple puncture wounds, widespread infection and a lower leg that splintered into nine pieces. Yet just four days into his care, Wiseman was informed he was under investigation for killing the grizzly, protected by the Endangered Species Act.
From the outset, investigators, and soon the public, held a conviction that Wiseman was lying. They accused the outfitter of shooting and provoking the attack. Even though lack of evidence and a clean polygraph test ultimately cleared Wiseman, suspicion has followed him during the past 40 years.
In researching his book, “Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado?” local author David Petersen was initially skeptical about Wiseman’s story.
As a guide and hunter, Wiseman had a robust reputation for bear hunting, Petersen said. And, Wiseman reportedly told Petersen he had seen a large bear in the area weeks before the attack and said he could kill it.
(Wiseman, for his part, admits to seeing a massive bear in the area weeks before. But, he said, it was at such a distance, he couldn’t say if it was a grizzly.)
Wiseman took Petersen in the backcountry to the scene of the fight and described the attack. Petersen went to the Denver Museum of Natural History where the bear hide and skeleton are stored to match the animal’s injuries to Wiseman’s tale. An avid hunter himself, Petersen looked at it every way he could trying to find inconsistencies.
But ultimately, Petersen came to the conclusion Wiseman was telling the truth.
After seeing the spot of the bout, Petersen said it was easy to see the bear had no escape. With a deep canyon dropping off to one side, a near-vertical wall of rock on the other, and Wiseman walking along a game trail, it’s easy to envision the sleeping bear spooked by his approach, feeling cornered and attacking in self-defense.
And, it’s important to take into account the age and physical condition of the grizzly. According to wildlife officials, she was more than 20-years old, with broken and abscessed teeth and severe arthritis. Wiseman, on the other hand, was a big man in his prime.
“So, you have this old geriatric bear fighting an exceptionally strong man,” Petersen said. “If it had been a less robust person and a younger bear, it would have come out differently. I think Ed was totally innocent, and he was damned lucky to survive.”
Do grizzlies still roam?
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that once in a while, a report will come in of a grizzly spotting, but there’s never been any hard evidence the bear still roams Colorado’s countryside.
“It’s very unlikely, given how many people are in the backcountry, that any grizzlies exist in Colorado,” Lewandowski said.
After the Wiseman attack, a large effort to find any other possible remaining grizzlies came up empty.
The bear’s demise, like so many other species in the West, is a sad but common tale, said Doug Peacock, an author and outdoorsmen. Grizzlies once had a wide range in North America but were pushed to the brink of extinction with Western settlement.
Now, some populations of grizzly have been established, mostly in Wyoming and Montana. In Colorado, though, there have been no talks of reintroducing the bear.
“Colorado is still such great habitat,” Peacock said. “It’s just over-populated.”
Wiseman has no rituals for Sept. 23, the day by all reason he should have died, save for a card or some gift from his wife of 33 years, Judy.
Deb Carpenter-Nolting, a family friend who wrote about Wiseman’s story in “Grizzly Attack in Colorado,” said she never had a doubt in her mind Wiseman has been telling the truth all these years.
“I think (people doubt him) because we can’t imagine someone can do that in this day and age,” she said. “The fact someone could kill a grizzly with a hand-held arrow, it’s just a fantastical tale.”
Wiseman kept outfitting for another 20 years or so after the attack, despite doctors’ predictions he would have trouble walking the rest of his life.
In fact, Wiseman does have lingering health issues because of his life-or-death fight, aside from the scars that prove it. Most recently, a fragment of the lower leg bone that was shattered created a surface wound. He also suffers from nerve damage.
“I’m incredibly lucky to be healthy,” he said. “I defied all odds on that, as well.”
Wiseman said the attack has been a defining moment in his life. Numerous stories and books have been written about him, and he even gets recognized in Walmart by people curious to hear the tale.
Yet, he doesn’t assign a higher significance to the experience. When asked what it feels like to be the man who killed Colorado’s last grizzly, Wiseman answered matter-of-factly.
“I lived in the outdoors, and I was aware of what the possibilities were, and it was just the circumstance,” he said. “There was nothing other than it was one of the events of life. People still wonder how in the world that ever happened. Well, I wonder myself.”