Has Columbia County gone ape over a bear?
It sure seemed that way in the past few weeks, as sightings of a wandering black bear became the latest summertime craze.
The bears typically are young males, forced out of their habitat in other parts of the state and hunting a new place to live. Citizens mostly have heeded wildlife officials, who advise simply leaving bears alone when they wander through our area.
There was a time, though, when the community wasn't quite so friendly to the traveling beasts.
Roberta Wilson, a long-time resident of Martinez who now lives in Lincoln County, recalls one such unhappy tale.
As is the case with these nearly annual bear sightings, this one occurred in late spring: May 22, 1974. The young male was spotted wandering in the Roper's Corner area near Belair and Columbia roads.
Bill Baab, the now-semi-retired outdoor writer for The Augusta Chronicle, penned the story headlined, "Complaints hit sheriff over slaying of bear."
It seems the bear had been seen spotted wandering through a trailer park. Several residents complained to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, and one of the deputies sent to the neighborhood borrowed a hunting rifle from Mrs. Wilson's husband and shot the bear.
The men intended to barbecue the bear until state wildlife officials found out about it. The Chronicle picks up the story:
"One of the angry officials is Thomson District Capt. Jimmy Steptoe of the Department of Natural Resources Game and Fish Division.
'I thought it was a mighty immature act for the deputy to shoot the bear,' Steptoe said. ... 'It just broke my heart when I saw it there dead.'"
Word of the shooting brought "a landslide of verbal abuse" on then-Columbia County Sheriff Ed Tankersley, according to the story. "My deputies shot it, and I can't believe that such a big thing is being made over it all," Tankersley said.
The DNR confiscated the 100-pound bear from the would-be cooks, and then warned other local residents to stop wandering through the woods carrying rifles, quite literally loaded for bear.
"I have instructed my men to make cases against anyone found in the woods armed with rifles or shotguns," Steptoe said.
Citizens these days are more apt to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, opting to shoot at unusual wildlife with cameras rather than firearms.
But all the excitement does, perhaps, tell us how far we've become removed from our own natural habitat when the thought of a single wayward bear can throw suburbanites into such a tizzy.
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