The Phantom of Hungry Hill

After three years of chasing shadows, two wildlife officers finally hunt down a stock-killing grizzly, only to become the target of its rage.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Grizzlies have always been a fact of life in the valley around Hungry Hill. The handful of ranchers who make up the sleepy community just off Highway 16 in central British Columbia expect to lose a calf or two to the occasional marauding bear that wanders down from the eastern face of the Telkwa Mountain Range. It was never a big deal, just part of the cost of doing business. But everything changed on a hazy summer morning in 1998 when rancher Maxine Bell visited her grazing lease to check her herd and came upon a harrowing scene.

She found a 1,500-pound cow that had been ripped apart like a feather pillow. Jagged bone fragments, bits of flesh and clumps of bloody hide were strewn over an area the size of a small corral. The set of huge tracks on the ground around the kill suggested that a big grizzly had ambushed its prey from the front, crushed the cow's skull with several blows from its powerful paws, and then gorged on the carcass before heading back into the bush. Unnerved by the ghastly sight and by the thought of such a brazen and seemingly vicious bear roaming the area, Bell immediately notified local authorities, including district conservation officer Kevin Nixon.

A report of a grizzly kill wasn't unusual to Nixon, who works out of the Wildlife Branch's Smithers office. However, this bear was different from the rest. After driving to Bell's ranch, viewing the gory site and subsequently receiving word of more livestock predation in the same area over the next several weeks, Nixon and fellow officer Brad Lacey knew they had a big problem on their hands.

A Plan Is Made
In cases that involved grizzly depredation, protocol called for Nixon and Lacey to attempt to capture and relocate the bear to an even more remote area of the province. But since the bear had demonstrated a preference for Hungry Hill's vulnerable livestock, it would almost certainly return, even if moved hundreds of miles away. Consequently, the wildlife officers decided that when they did trap the bear, they would destroy it. Nixon recalled a grizzly sow and two cubs that terrorized local ranchers for a few months in 1988 before they vanished into the mountain foothills, although not before they had acquired a taste for beef. Nixon was convinced that the rogue bear they faced was one of the cubs that had visited the area with its mother more than 10 years before.

Initial efforts to capture the bear involved setting traps around fresh livestock kills, which began to occur with greater frequency. Dead cattle were found in open pastures, overgrown meadows and even the deep forests that rimmed various ranches.

Culvert traps, which are usually foolproof and effective, couldn't catch the nuisance grizzly. The next step for Nixon and Lacey was to place a series of spring-loaded cable snares around recently located carcasses. If stepped on, the snares would "jump" off the ground and cinch down on the bear's upper leg, anchoring it to a tree. But things never went as planned. Time after time, the bear managed to avoid the snares, frustrating the two officers and earning the cagey animal a reputation among locals as the "phantom grizzly" that couldn't be caught.

[pagebreak] As the months of disappointment for Nixon and Lacey turned into a year of frustration, the two wardens decided to change tactics. In an attempt to steer the bear directly into their snares, they built a giant "cubby set"-a larger version of the type fur trappers use for foxes and raccoons. Upon arriving at the scene of the latest kill, a steer, they dragged the carcass under the drooping boughs of a large spruce, secured it to the trunk and set about stacking heavy logs on three sides of it. In order to get at its kill, the boar grizzly would have to pass through the narrow entrance, which was rigged with three snares.

Foiled Again
Early the next morning, the two officers returd to find the carcass missing, the logs scattered, all the snares tripped and...no bear. Instead of taking the direct route into the set, the big grizzly had made its own entrance by ripping through the log pile from the side to get at the steer. In doing so it managed to spring one snare with a log. The other two had been tripped as the boar dragged the carcass away.

Though frustrated by the bear's caginess, the officers were intent on another attempt, only this time they would spend the night waiting for the grizzly's return. Before rebuilding the set, Nixon and Lacey cautiously followed the drag marks down into a nearby hollow. The bear had been there just a few hours before and was probably still close. Tension mounted as the two plunged into the brush, which became increasingly thick. They eventually located the mangled steer, but at the same time made an ominous discovery.

The deepest portion of the hollow had dugout beds the bear had clawed out. The damp air was tinged with the putrid smell of rotting flesh, and Nixon noticed bones protruding from several of the beds. After digging around a bit, he and Lacey found the remains of scores of cattle that had been reported missing by ranchers. Many mysteries were solved in the Phantom's lair. It was obvious that the gluttonous beast had hunted the area for a long time. Feeling vulnerable in the close confines of the hollow, the two officers quickly left the eerie boneyard.

With a heavy snow cover in early spring of 2000, Nixon and Lacey thought they had caught a break when fresh grizzly tracks were located at a local ranch. By trailing them into the bush, the men hoped to find the bear's winter den, which it would probably still be using despite its early foray. They followed the tracks by snowmobile and then snowshoes for more than 10 miles, but lost the trail when the bear crossed a south-facing slope where the snow had melted. Returning to the ranch, the officers acquired a cow that had died of natural causes and made a set, hoping the bear would return. On April Fool's Day, their prayers seemed to be answered when a grizzly was snared. After the 500-pound male was dispatched, measurements were taken of the feet and teeth, and they seemed to match the tracks and bite marks left by the Phantom. Nixon and Lacey thought their task was completed.

Two weeks later the office phone rang. It was Bell, reporting that more livestock had been killed. The Phantom was back.

[pagebreak] The Final Showdown
Another year of missed opportunities and frustration passed before Nixon and Lacey got the break they'd been waiting for. It came on a rainy morning in early October 2001. Nixon received a call at dawn from an excited Lacey. A huge grizzly was trapped in a snare on the Bell ranch and Lacey was fairly sure it was the Phantom. Arriving at the ranch 45 minutes later, Nixon met up with Lacey and the men discussed their tactics. The two of them, rifles at the ready, would move in on the bear, which was trapped in a hollow just off the road. Once he had a clear shooting lane, Nixon would finish off the bear.

As the men slipped through the woods toward the trap, Nixon could hear the deep bellowing and woofing of the struggling grizzly. At the edge of the hollow, the two peered down and glimpsed the beast. It was no more than 35 yards away, just on the other side of a small stream running through the middle of a shallow gorge. The massive bear was systematically thrusting all of its weight against the snare, trying to free itself. The bear looked up but barely acknowledged the presence of the two men as it continued its struggle.

After a brief conference the officers opted to move down to a clearing that offered a better shot. While the pair picked their way toward the opening, the bear's methodical tugging turned to a desperate thrashing rage, as if it could sense the urgency of its situation. In the midst of the frenzy, a faint yet distinct metallic ping could be heard when the snare cable snapped against the weight of the huge beast. A fleeting moment of silence ensued as the bear stumbled backward, stunned by its sudden freedom. Then, as in a movie, all movement seemed to occur in slow motion. The officers saw the grizzly regain its composure, turn its massive head uphill and transfix them with its narrow-set eyes. Digging in its broad front feet, the hulking form of rippling muscle, sharp teeth and finger-long claws charged up the hill.

With no time to think, much less discuss the sudden turn of events, the two men reacted out of pure instinct. They instantly shouldered their rifles, Nixon's a .30/06 loaded with 180-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claws and Lacey's a .338 with 225-grain Nosler Partition bullets. The only word uttered was Nixon's short command: "Wait!" Water sprayed in all directions as the bear crashed through a pool in the creek. It ran straight for the officers, intent on eliminating its natural enemies at the top of the hill. Nixon's heart was in his throat as he frantically disengaged his rifle's safety and tried to settle jittery crosshairs on the jumbled swirl of brown barreling toward him. The normally deafening crack of the two rifles discharging was lost in the moment when the pair of officers simultaneously pulled the triggers.

[pagebreak] Lacey's shot was the one that stopped the bear, as the bullet shattered the Phantom's spine. Nixon's shot, which entered the grizzly's head beneath its chin, traveled forward into the body before fragmenting. The bear shuddered and lunged forward as its front legs buckled. Then its enormous body contorted and slumped sideways to the ground in a heaving pile.

The Phantom was finally dead. By the officers' estimates, the whole charge sequence had taken no more than two seconds. The grizzly fell just seven paces from Nixon and Lacey, a distance that amounted to a single bound for the huge animal.

Hours later, the two weary officers returned to the Bell household to ward off the day's damp chill with coffee. After coolly recounting the story of the Phantom's end to the various neighbors who streamed in and out of the house, Nixon and Lacey eventually found themselves alone in the kitchen. They spoke quietly about a job well done, but also of the instant when the Phantom came charging up the hill at them.

A moment of silence overtook the men as they stood at the window and stared out into the rain, each taking another sip of steaming coffee. Their hands trembled as they lifted the cups to their lips.In the midst of the frenzy, a faint yet distinct metallic ping could be heard when the snare cable snapped against the weight of the huge beast. A fleeting moment of silence ensued as the bear stumbled backward, stunned by its sudden freedom. Then, as in a movie, all movement seemed to occur in slow motion. The officers saw the grizzly regain its composure, turn its massive head uphill and transfix them with its narrow-set eyes. Digging in its broad front feet, the hulking form of rippling muscle, sharp teeth and finger-long claws charged up the hill.

With no time to think, much less discuss the sudden turn of events, the two men reacted out of pure instinct. They instantly shouldered their rifles, Nixon's a .30/06 loaded with 180-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claws and Lacey's a .338 with 225-grain Nosler Partition bullets. The only word uttered was Nixon's short command: "Wait!" Water sprayed in all directions as the bear crashed through a pool in the creek. It ran straight for the officers, intent on eliminating its natural enemies at the top of the hill. Nixon's heart was in his throat as he frantically disengaged his rifle's safety and tried to settle jittery crosshairs on the jumbled swirl of brown barreling toward him. The normally deafening crack of the two rifles discharging was lost in the moment when the pair of officers simultaneously pulled the triggers.

[pagebreak] Lacey's shot was the one that stopped the bear, as the bullet shattered the Phantom's spine. Nixon's shot, which entered the grizzly's head beneath its chin, traveled forward into the body before fragmenting. The bear shuddered and lunged forward as its front legs buckled. Then its enormous body contorted and slumped sideways to the ground in a heaving pile.

The Phantom was finally dead. By the officers' estimates, the whole charge sequence had taken no more than two seconds. The grizzly fell just seven paces from Nixon and Lacey, a distance that amounted to a single bound for the huge animal.

Hours later, the two weary officers returned to the Bell household to ward off the day's damp chill with coffee. After coolly recounting the story of the Phantom's end to the various neighbors who streamed in and out of the house, Nixon and Lacey eventually found themselves alone in the kitchen. They spoke quietly about a job well done, but also of the instant when the Phantom came charging up the hill at them.

A moment of silence overtook the men as they stood at the window and stared out into the rain, each taking another sip of steaming coffee. Their hands trembled as they lifted the cups to their lips.