The Patriarch of Pioneer Mountain

An eight-year journey of pursuing a giant chocolate-phase black bear ends when the stars align and the hammer falls.

The Patriarch of Pioneer Mountain

Brett McDonald ended the saga of the Patriarch of Pioneer Mountain when he and the author stalked the bear in its home range and he dropped it with a well-placed shot at close range when it responded to a cub bear in distress call.

It was one of those springs that all bear hunters in the northern Rockies dream about. A seemingly endless winter with record snowfalls ended in an instant as daytime temperatures soared into the 70s and 80s. The massive drifts of snow that barred travel into remote areas began to melt as new life in the form of spring grass shoots and mountain flowers emerged on the southern-facing alpine parks and meadows and bears abandoned their recently flooded dens. 

As a professional guide, I was determined to spend much of the pre-season glassing these remote green slopes for bears, but access was challenging because drifts of snow and ice still covered the roadways and trails leading to the high country. I buried the Jeep to the axels, dug her out and hit the drift again, but I was still miles from where I wanted to be. I would have to settle for glassing the pristine spring-filled hillsides from lower elevations until Mother Nature further loosened her grip on winter. As the sun began to set, my mind wandered. Was this the year I would finally harvest that big chocolate bruin, or would the snowpack once again prevent me from entering his sanctuary? 

The first time I laid eyes on the beast was nearly eight years ago. My hunter and I had harvested a young cinnamon boar during the morning hours of his first day in the field. Rather than sit in the lodge celebrating our success, we opted to spend additional time in the field glassing and hopefully viewing more bears. That evening we climbed to a high spot in the Pioneer Mountains, which provided a breathtaking view of the Big Hole Valley and mountain ranges far off to the west. Below us was a vast mountain slope with sagebrush parks and intermittent springs. About 2 miles down toward the bottom of the slope, a small stream broke through an open meadow of lush green spring grasses. We relaxed in the warmth of the westward sun as we glassed the area for signs of life.

 

First Sighting

That’s when I spied him for the first time — when a monster of a chocolate-phase black bear stepped out into that bottom meadow. We watched as he continued to feed and eventually worked his way along a fenceline. He was nearly as tall at the shoulder as the fence posts! But we had already tagged out and all we could do was simply watch him in all his glory. The chocolate bear survived that hunting season, and I was intent on another rendezvous. 

The following year, I once again found my adversary feeding in the same meadow, and a different hunter was faced with a similar scenario. This round was again won by the chocolate boar. Not because we didn’t have a tag, but because the physical exertion of the hunt was more than my hunter was capable of. 

Another year, another attempt — this time teamed up with outdoor writer Mark Kayser, who was producing an episode for an outdoor television show. Our intent was to film a bear charging the call and harvest it with a Smith & Wesson .50-caliber pistol. We headed straight for the area that held that big chocolate bore. But rather than view the area from above, we descended the slope and dropped right down to nestle in above the grassy meadow. Before we could even set up, Mark spotted the huge bear about 450 to 500 yards away. The cameraman was on point and rolling as I used a rabbit-in-distress call to get the bear’s attention, which stopped and stared intently at the source of the sound, but then proceeded on his way. The bear was nowhere near the required range for the S&W pistol. But it was only our first day in the field together and we figured we would get another opportunity. The big chocolate won round three after we were unsuccessful in relocating him.

The author and his hunter set up overlooking the meadow where the huge chocolate bear had previously been spotted.
The author and his hunter set up overlooking the meadow where the huge chocolate bear had previously been spotted.

Was He Still Alive?

The years that followed brought deep snows and late springs to the Pioneer Mountains. Though I wanted to forge back into the bear’s sanctuary, I was continually blocked by impenetrable 6- to 8-foot snow drifts. To physically take on the 6-mile journey through the deep snow was more than any of my clients could undertake, even on snowshoes. It had now been years since I first found that big chocolate. Was he still alive after all this time? 

My pre-season scouting efforts paid off during Montana’s opening week of spring bear season, with my clients taking some beautiful trophies in the lower elevations. Each day, I would bury my Jeep to the axels pushing a path ever nearer to the big chocolate bear’s sanctuary. The second week of the season was similar to the first, but even with sun-filled skies melting away the snow I was still miles away from my target area. Finally, during the third week I caught a lucky break. The drifts began to melt, and though the road was not drivable by Jeep, an attempt to locate the chocolate boar on foot with the right hunter would be possible.

 

And Then the Stars Aligned

The father-and-son team of Don and Brett McDonald from Nebraska had joined Stockton Outfitters for their hunt during the third week of the season. When Brett stepped into my office, I knew immediately that the stars had aligned, and my eight-year wait was nearing an end. Brett was a young man in his early-to-mid 30s. He was tall, broad at the shoulders and capable and eager to push himself physically. There was one small roadblock: I was not booked to hunt with him. In fact, I was slated to hunt with a dear friend and long-time client, Tom Francis from Virginia. 

Tom has experienced tremendous success here in southwestern Montana and is a very accomplished hunter. As if by design, Tom again demonstrated his hunting prowess as he belly crawled along a steep sage-filled park to within 100 yards of a beautiful mahogany bear. A single well-placed shot ended Tom’s hunt only hours after it had begun. Call it luck or call it fate, my enthusiasm soared at the possibility of seeing the chocolate once more. 

With Tom’s permission, I offered my guide services to Brett and Don, who had been hunting hard and had seen lots of sign but had yet to eyeball a bear. The men separated to increase their odds for success, and Brett and I left early for the evening hunt. We hiked 3 miles along an old logging road, breaking drifts as we marched, finally reaching our destination. As we broke into the first of a series of sagebrush parks that dropped down the steep incline toward the bottom of the mountain, we noticed that the grasses had not yet greened up in the upper elevations. In fact, great drifts of snow were still present and surrounded by compacted gray grasses and sage.

A glimmer of light caught my eye, as I spotted the tip of an antler sticking out of the snow and Brett and I trudged over to take a closer look. Stripped of hide and meat, a winter-killed 6x6 bull elk lay partially exposed. We removed the antlers from the carcass and stashed them along the trail so we could pick them up on our return trip and then began our descent farther down the slope.

 

The Final Encounter

Brett and I found a rock outcropping that gave us a splendid view of the area below, We spoke softly and laughed at our luck in finding the winter-killed bull. Just then I noticed movement about 2 miles below us on the edge of an aspen patch. I raised my bino and knew instantly that it was the chocolate boar. I gestured to Brett to gather his gear and we began the steep descent down the mountain. We entered the timber and lost sight of the bear for about 15 minutes. As we emerged back into the open, we paused and glassed. It was the chocolate, but something about him did not appear right. He was much more slender than I remembered and his fur seemed slightly thin. We continued our descent at a rapid pace, keeping an ever wary eye on our target. 

We had closed the gap to about 600 yards and it was now time to slow our pace, maintain a favorable wind and move into position for a shot. Using the terrain, Brett and I kept a low profile as we crept ever so methodically toward a high spot roughly 150 yards from the grazing bruin. We eased slowly into position using a natural rock outcropping to hide our movements. To our dismay, the bear had completely vanished! Our hearts sunk as we searched to no avail along the aspens and into the sage. I instructed Brett to sit atop the rocks as I crawled to a lone pine that overlooked a small valley below. Nothing was moving. It appeared that the chocolate boar had won yet another round. 

As a last ditch effort, I dug a cub bear call from my pack and commenced blowing on it. After the first series of calls a marmot climbed from his hole and sat high on a nearby rock staring intently. Brett and I smiled to one another at his appearance, as I proceeded with another series of calls. We were about to admit defeat, when I caught a slight movement in the sage only 15 to 20 yards away — the boar bear stalking toward the source of the call! Thankfully, and without hesitation, Brett fired, and the bear disappeared back into the thick sage where he had been hiding. Adrenaline surged through our veins as we collected ourselves after the close encounter. 

We slowly and alertly eased through the sage until we spotted chocolate-colored fur heaped up on the ground. Upon closer inspection, the boar was a mere shadow of his former self. Though his skull was large and prominent, he had not wintered well. He was extremely lean — ribs showing along his sides. He appeared to be malnourished — his fur wasn’t rubbed, but it was very thin. It was evident he was on the decline and not long for this world. What few teeth remained were worn beyond recognition — proof that Brett’s trophy had lived almost a quarter-century. 

As darkness fell, Brett and I began our long, uphill journey of over 6 miles back to the Jeep. Pride and wonder filled our minds as we ascended the slope to add even more weight to our heavy packs with the rack of the winter-killed bull. Our accomplishment was much more than attaining a trophy. We had successfully won round four with the ancient bear in a manner that gave honor to our fallen adversary. For this was no mere bear, he was the Patriarch of the Pioneer Mountain range.

The black bear's large skull and declining health evidenced its age.
The black bear's large skull and declining health evidenced its age.

Author’s Note: A black bear’s age can be determined by its teeth. Much like counting the rings of a tree, a cross section of a bear’s tooth reveals a ring for each year of its life. A strong white layer grows during the spring, summer and fall months while a gray or blackish layer appears that represents the hibernation period. Thus, each dark ring represents a year in the life of a bear. The Patriarch of the Pioneers was unofficially aged at 24 years old. 

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