Setting the story straight about Margaret McDonald's huge grizzly

2014-03-27T00:00:00Z 2014-03-28T00:29:04Z Setting the story straight about Margaret McDonald's huge grizzlyBy BRETT FRENCH The Billings Gazette

No two storytellers will recount a tale the same.

Such is the case with the story of Margaret McDonald and the grizzly bear she shot while she was alone one night at the Silver Tip Ranch, just north of Yellowstone National Park, in the spring of 1964.

The story came across my desk from the descendants of Vern Waples, a former Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden who worked in the Red Lodge area for decades. His heirs had the foresight to videotape some of Waples’ great tales before he died. One of them was about Margaret’s bear, and with the Waples family’s permission, I published the tale on March 6.

That original story contained some incorrect material. For one, it had their name spelled MacDonald. Secondly, it called Margaret’s husband Jock when his name is Jack. Thirdly, in attempting to nail down the time of the incident I incorrectly came up with a date in the early 1970s.

Since my story ran, folks who knew Margaret and Jack have called or emailed. I also tracked down some friends, family and an original author of the tale. Here, then, is my attempt to set the record straight.

Author tracked down

Virgil W. Binkley was in his late 30s when he first met Margaret and Jack while accompanying a friend on an elk hunting trip into the Silver Tip Ranch. It was on that outing that the forester heard Margaret’s tale, who he calls Marguerite, her proper name.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be an outdoor writer, but I discovered it was a damn poor way to make a living,” Binkley said in a telephone interview. At age 82 he now lives in Townsend, chuckling at the idea that the old story still has legs.

Binkley submitted his story to Outdoor Life and in October of 1967, it was published. It’s written as a first-person account by Margaret. Billings resident Bob Stroebel brought the article to my attention, and Outdoor Life provided a copy that you can now see and read online.

Waples’ story had Margaret shooting the big bear after it had broken down the cabin’s door. That was where Jack stumbled over the animal after returning from Gardiner for winter supplies. Another version I heard was that she shot it through the door and it lay outside injured and moaning all night.

Magazine article

Binkley’s Outdoor Life story offers a third version. The grizzly bear had first shown up at night, rattling the cabin door. Looking out the bedroom window, Margaret said, “There in the spring moonlight that bathed the snow-covered yard stood the biggest grizzly I’d ever seen.”

That first night the grizzly tore a cooler off the outside of the cabin’s wall and made off with a side of bacon. Concerned, Margaret phoned Jack and “he told me how to load the Model 70 Winchester .30-06 and carefully instructed me about what to do if the bear returned.”

Concerned about the bear revisiting, Margaret moved to a nearby cabin with a stronger door. At about 7:30 that second night, she heard the bear rummaging around outside the adjacent cabin. Worried that if it got inside it would make a mess, she stepped outside with the rifle in hand and yelled at the big bruin in an attempt to scare him away.

“He reared up on his hind legs, and even at 40 feet he towered above me.”

Margaret shot the bear in the chest as it moved toward her. “He reeled, dropped to all fours and made for me, his immense head swinging from side to side.

“I was too scared to eject the shell and fire again, and afraid not to. The bear passed not five feet from where I stood motionless in the shadow of the cabin, bolted into a thicket, and began thrashing around.”

Using a flashlight, she shined it on the bear and fired again, this time killing the grizzly.

“This seemed an unfitting fate for such a beautiful silvertip, but his boldness had made my life much too uncomfortable.”

Jack estimated the bear’s weight at 850 pounds. Before hibernation, he guessed it would have weighed close to half a ton. The bear’s hind feet were 12 inches long from heel to toe.

“I can’t help but think that the good Lord was looking out for me that moonlit night in the spring of 1964,” the story concludes.

Record-book bear

According to the Montana big game records on Fish Wildlife and Parks’ website, the bear’s skull measured 24 3/16 inches, which ranks it seventh in the state’s Boone and Crockett record book. Grizzly bear hunting is no longer allowed, since the bears have been listed as an endangered species.

Back when the Outdoor Life article appeared, the bear was the fourth-largest grizzly ever shot in Montana.

Margaret was no stranger to the mountains. Her obituary said that her parents moved when she was a young girl from Nebraska to Buffalo, Wyo., and then to Absarokee where the family ranched and operated an outfitting and guide service. No doubt, Margaret cut her teeth in the mountains as a youngster helping with the family business. She graduated from high school in Billings, marrying John A. “Jack” McDonald on Oct. 21, 1933, in Livingston.

“She enjoyed horseback riding, hunting for Indian artifacts and gardening,” her obituary reads.

Bear country

Bear sightings and run-ins were almost routine at the Silver Tip Ranch, which is located in the heart of prime grizzly habitat. Situated on the banks of Slough Creek, the area was originally homesteaded by G. Milton Ames in 1913. A photo in the Yellowstone Gateway Museum of Park County’s archives shows the outside of Ames’ cabin with several bear hides nailed to the log walls.

On the back of the photo is written: "First year on my homestead. Shot eight bears that spring. Got five the last or 8th year — two of them full-grown silver tips." Silver tip is another name for grizzly bear.

The ranch was later purchased and turned into the dude ranch that Margaret and Jack managed. According to their granddaughter-in-law, Tami McDonald, “They were there for 20 years, that’s how tough they were.”

Binkley said their living conditions reminded him of growing up in the 1930s — no running water, and heat and cooking supplied by wood-fired stoves.

“A guy would pretty much classify Jack as a mountain man,” said Steven Radue, a Billings resident who also met the couple when he hunted on their ranch in the Cinnabar Basin, where Jack’s grandparents had homesteaded in the 1800s. “I tell you they were two really neat people, and they cared about other people.”

Moving on

When the deep, snowy winters at Silver Tip Ranch got too tough, the couple worked in Pryor — Jack as a bus driver and Margaret as a school cook. They returned to the Cinnabar Basin in the late 1970s. Interestingly, Tami and her family — the fifth generation of McDonalds — are now caretakers of the family’s ranch, hosting guests much like Jack and Margaret.

Margaret and Jack had three children: John “Jack” Jr. who was in charge of special projects in Yellowstone National Park for more than four decades; Ron, a logger in Priest Lake, Idaho; and a daughter, Delores Kopland; as well as nine granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

Margaret died at the Livingston Memorial Hospital on Sept. 23, 1989, at the age of 75. Jack died on Sept. 8, 1994, at the age of 83.

“The last time I saw Jack was in the early 90s,” said Kelly Radue, Steven’s brother and the man who had first befriended Jack and hunted and fished with him. “And he was still his same old self, very self-reliant. One of those guys you just are glad that you met.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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