- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

It happened just before the end of 2002. An old friend who lives in Kentucky forwarded a little item that he found on the Internet. "New Record Bear Killed: 1,600 Pounds," said the redundant headline. (Have you ever heard of anybody setting an old record?) The story came out of Alaska and if it doesn't convince you to be wary of what you see on the Internet, nothing will.
"Try stopping this one with a bow and arrow," my e-mailer remarked at the beginning, and at the bottom of his forwarded mail were several photo attachments showing a young man with a very large (and very dead) Alaskan brown bear, which is really nothing more than a super-sized grizzly because its coastal diet usually is richer and more abundant than that of its inland cousins. However, some scientists believe coastal browns should be considered a separate species altogether.
Anyhow, the Internet "scoop" said, "The attached pictures are of a guy who works for the Forest Service in Alaska. He was out deer hunting [when] a large grizzly charged him from about 40 yards away.
"The guy unloaded a 7-mm magnum semi-automatic into the bear and it dropped a few feet from him.
"The thing was still alive so he reloaded and [shot it again] in the head.
"It was over 1,600 pounds and 12 feet high at the shoulder. It's a world record. The bear had killed a couple of other people.
"Of course, the game department did not let him keep it. Think about it. This thing on its hind legs could walk up to the average single-story house and look at the roof at eye level."
The trouble was that "the guy," the shooter, was never identified. The man apparently had no name, yet he shot a 1,600-pound bear that stood 12 feet tall at the shoulder. To be sure, that would be a world record.
We thought we had a story until a newspaperman's natural skepticism kicked in. I contacted the Alaska Fish & Game Department, as well as the Anchorage Daily News to ask about this monstrosity of a bear that threatened an innocent deer hunter. I wanted to know more about a ferocious animal that already had killed some people.
To my surprise, I received a steady series of chuckles. For starters, the incident occurred in the fall of 2001, well over a year earlier, not in the past several weeks as the Internet story had it. And the bear in the picture wasn't shot by a nameless hunter; it was a fine specimen taken legally by Theodore Winnen, a 22-year-old crew member of the 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Winnen doesn't work for the U.S. Forest Service, as the Internet blurb had it.
Natalie Phillips, the reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who wrote the original story about Winnen's bear which had plenty of excitement without embellishment said, "The enormous brown bear was a record, but it wasn't as big as its legend. It was a big bear its skull the size of a beer keg, its paws as big as a man's chest."
So the airman, Winnen, did get a record-book grizzly during a 2001 deer hunt in Prince William Sound. The hide measured 10 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail, and while it's impossible to know exactly how much the bear weighed (having been field-dressed, later skinned), a brown bear expert, Joe Want of Fairbanks, says the 20-year-old bear weighed between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds.
By any standard, that's a humdinger of a brown bear, so big in fact that it grew into a fairy tale.
Said Phillips, "Equally amazing is how much the bear has grown in size and legend in just a few weeks' time on the Internet. Hundreds of people around Alaska and across the country are circulating photographs of the bear and the hunter who shot it. With each missive, the tale and the bear seem to grow.
"By the time e-mail stories started reaching the Daily News in late November, the bear towered 12 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 1,600 pounds. Another e-mailer said the ferocious bear had charged the unsuspecting deer hunter, who emptied his gun but shot the bear dead in the nick of time with his last shell."
Here's what really happened according to the Daily News' Phillips: Back in October 2001, Winnen and three hunting pals were dropped off on Hinchinbrook Island in the heart of Prince William Sound by an air taxi. Hinchinbrook is a 165-square-mile island with an estimated population of about 100 brown bears, giving it the distinction of harboring the highest density of bears of any island in the Sound.
Winnen wanted a week filled with daily hunts for blacktail deer but, just in case, he also bought a bear permit.
The airman carried a powerful .338-caliber Winchester Magnum, which is not unusual among Alaska hunters who know they might run into a bear while deer hunting.
When the hunters came upon a deep pool in a creek that was filled with dying salmon the spawning run being over Winnen knew he was looking at a bear's "all you can eat" cafeteria.
In mid-morning, Winnen saw a big brown bear flipping over logs, looking for fish. Winnen decided he wanted the bear. What didn't happen was that he used a 7-mm Remington Mag rifle and that the bear attacked from about 40 yards away. In fact, the bear disappeared and suddenly popped up in front of the hunter no more than 10 yards away. And, of course, the size was all wrong, but what Winnen thought when the brown bear looked toward him from 30 feet away is probably not suited for a family newspaper. He shot the animal several times, discovered that it was not dead and had to shoot it again, yet he was never attacked by the animal. And, no, the bear hadn't killed any humans.
Despite thorough newspaper coverage that told the truth, from that moment on the bear hunt took on a life of its own. Meanwhile, don't believe everything you read on the Internet.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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