Inside the Legacy of Old Ephraim and “Outlaw Animals"

Carnivores aren’t welcome in the West, but their ghosts are

By Riley Black

January 12, 2022


Photo by undefined undefined/iStock

I didn’t know that I had been saying Old Ephraim’s name wrong until I got into town. Standing behind the counter of Bear Lake Pizza Company, eyeing the 24-inch-wide pan named after the grizzly that once roamed the aspen-covered terrain of Utah’s Logan Canyon, I asked for an “Old Eff-ram.” The server corrected me with an “Are you sure you want the Old Ee-fram?” I corrected myself. I didn’t want to besmirch the old ursid’s memory. “Yes,” I replied, “and I think we’re going to need a to-go box.” What better way to honor a legendary bear than eat a pizza in memoriam? 

Now and then, a shop manager would pop out into the cool October air on the patio to drop another piece of information about the legendary grizzly. The bear was said to be a giant, standing nearly 10 feet tall when upright. And he was insatiable. The flyer the restaurant gave my party of three stated that Old Ephraim could kill as many as 23 sheep in one night, though the manager cited an even higher tally. Even the story of Old Ephraim’s death verged into the stupendous. In 1923, after 10 years of trying to trap Old Ephraim, hunter Frank Clark is said to have finally caught the bear with a 23-pound trap attached to a log by way of a heavy chain. The bear was so strong, the story goes, that he was jostling the trap, the chain, and log into the air like a flail, requiring that Clark use all seven shells at his disposal. Even then, the bear took hours to perish from his wounds.

A stone grave said to be the height of Old Ephraim himself now stands just off a two-track dirt road in the depths of Logan Canyon. The grave is as complicated as the story of the bear’s death. After being skinned, Old Ephraim was buried near the place where he perished. Later, Boy Scout Troop 43 exhumed the bear’s remains and sent the skull to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC—other visitors took some of Old Ephraim’s bones as curios. It wasn’t until 1966 that the current tombstone was created, placed, and commemorated, including a poem credited to Nephi J. Bott:

Old Ephraim, Old Ephraim, Your deeds were so wrong.

Yet we build you this marker and sing you this song.

To the king of the forest so mighty and tall,

We salute you, Old Ephraim, the king of them all.

Reading those words while my dog snuffled around the nearby trees, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the paternalistic tone. Old Ephraim, a beast known by the three-toed tracks he left behind and said to be so cunning that he could move through the forest without being seen, is scolded in death as if he were nothing but a naughty pup. Who could blame a 1,100-pound grizzly for snacking on easily available and unwary livestock the same way we grab take-out when cooking feels like too much? A bear that had come to be seen as a looming, devilish threat to the occupation of the West has, in death, been transformed into a conquered, mischievous creature.

A bear that had come to be seen as a looming, devilish threat to the occupation of the West has, in death, been transformed into a conquered, mischievous creature.

Eventually, Old Ephraim’s battered skull was sent back to Utah, where it now rests about an hour away from his grave, at the Utah State University library. Outside of the legends and stories and massive pizza that could barely fit in the back of my Subaru for the drive home, the roughed-up collection of bones is all that’s left of Utah’s most notorious outlaw animal. Few animals hold this designation. That’s because, in the eras of rapid colonization and government-led predator control, outlaw animals were often the last of their species in their particular haunts. 

Old Ephraim had equivalents in the Barnard Monster—Vermont’s last mountain lion, shot in 1881—and Lobo the King of Currumpaw, one of the last gray wolves in New Mexico, who was memorialized in sensational fashion in Ernest Thompson Seton’s 1898 book Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s tale, especially, is shot through with circumstances that feel even more outlandish than Old Ephraim’s. Lobo was so smart that he not only removed poison traps from baited carcasses but also piled them together and pooped on them in contempt. The only way he was finally caught, or was even seen in the flesh, was following the death of his mate, Blanca, at which point he was supposedly trapped and taken back to a ranch, where he died of a broken heart.

Each of these outlaw animals posed a challenge to hunters. These animals were always among the largest, the stealthiest, and the most powerful of their breed, the banner-bearers for the last of their species. They seemed almost human, a level above the countless numbers of their species that had been slaughtered before. And their counterpart lay in the hunter who pursued them, the men who saw the existence of an Old Ephraim or Barnard Monster or Lobo as a challenge to Western society’s claim to the land—hunters who could move and think like carnivores.  

It’s not an unfamiliar impulse. Even in video games, virtual animals of legendary status are often given names and powerful statistics—once a player puts them down via rifle, magic, or sword, they’re worth valuable loot. In reality or in ones and zeros, each stands as a seemingly imminent threat to a quiet and safe life, where being devoured is not a daily risk. The bears, wolves, and big cats of North America stood as a challenge to settlers, and the extermination of these animals had as much to do with turning the country into a makeshift Eden as personal pride. It’s no surprise that in contrast, these powerful animals were important to the Indigenous cultures and peoples on this continent—the death of large carnivores conferred a symbolic extension of horrific extermination. 

Standing beside the place where Old Ephraim was buried, exhumed, honored, and chastened, I wondered if the forest missed him and the other grizzlies that once shuffled through the mountain forests of the Utah-Idaho border. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder or listen for a grunt from the aspen groves. I didn’t have to tell my dog to stay close lest he blunder into a bear. All the senses that had allowed my primate ancestors to survive could remain at their comfortable background levels as I pondered a bear that had roamed here just over a century before. I hated it. The relative safety of fairytale woods didn’t feel worth it. 

The spirit of Old Ephraim is welcome, while the beast himself was shunned. Despite rumors of grizzlies nearby, the bears have not been seen here in a century. Only the knowledge of what’s lost, stories that are more about us than bears, keeps people thinking of Ursus horribilis in the hills. It’s a way to keep conquering the carnivore. All the while, the alpine groves stand there—many of their visitors unaware of what once walked among their trunks and that such shadows could slink through the forest again should we allow them to. We eat Old Ephraim in effigy, unable to bear the truth of his demise.