The partially fossilized skull of what is believed to have been a grizzly bear was found by a pair of Kansas sisters during a mid-August kayaking trip on the Arkansas River.
Winfield natives Ashley and Erin Watt were navigating the south-central Kansas waters when they saw the back of the skull protruding from a sandbar. They carefully removed the skull, which lacked a jawbone, and noticed the large incisors and canines of a carnivore.
After showing the skull to Mike Everhart, adjunct curator for the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, they were able to verify the large skull — 16-inches long and 8.5 inches wide — most likely belonged to a grizzly bear and was likely more than 200 years old.
"Erin and I were just on a short kayak trip that we usually make multiple times a summer," Ashley Watt told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "This summer was a little different because of the rains, so it was actually the only time we were able to go. We just stopped on a sandbar to walk around and there it was, nose down in the sand.
"We are both still baffled at what we found. Neither of us considered bear when we originally saw the skull and grizzly was definitely not on our radar. After we posted it on Facebook, several people mentioned that bears were in the area in the 1800s."
Grizzlies are native to Kansas but have long been extirpated from the state, likely in the mid-1800s, according to the Kansas Biological Survey’s “Mammals of Kansas” online guide.
“The grizzly bear probably ranged throughout Kansas,” the guide says. “No specimens have survived, however, and literature records are the only documentation for this species in the state. Grizzly bears were reported from Gove, Logan, and Morris counties, and this suggests that they may have concentrated along rivers, stream courses and nearby ridges.”
Though there are several historical accounts of grizzly bears in Kansas, this could be the first physical evidence of their former presence, pending species verification, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism said in a news release about the find.
“It’s been pretty amazing not only discovering the skull but also the crowdsourcing used to determine how truly exceptional this find is,” Ashley Watt said in the release. “We can’t wait to see what further information can be uncovered about this incredible animal.”
Ashley, who lives in Goddard, said in a Facebook post she was told the bear probably died of old age not too far from the location where the skull was found, because if it had traveled farther down river, it likely wouldn’t have been in as good of condition. She said the sisters were donating the skull to the Sternberg Museum for further research.
The KDWPT said it is believed the skull was deposited into the Arkansas River sands and preserved there until this year, when the state’s historic floods displaced it.
"The bear skull was washed out of the same river sediments that routinely produce the skulls and bones of the American bison, some of which could date back as far as the last Ice Age,” Everhart said in the release. “Whether it is hundreds or thousands of years old, the skull gives us a better insight into the richness of life on the plains before Western man."
After the KDWPT shared their story on a Facebook post Tuesday, it soon became somewhat of a viral sensation, earning coverage from regional and national media outlets, including Wichita's KAKE, USA Today and Fox News. Ashley, a former agriculture teacher at Oxford Jr./Sr. High School, and Erin, an Animal Science student at West Texas A&M University, were particularly happy with the scientific curiosity the story stirred up.
"It is amazing how far this story has traveled and the interest it has generated," Ashley told the C-J. "We both love history, exploring and science, and if this discovery spikes interest in others, we are happy. We cannot wait for the museum to determine more about the age and specific species of bear."
KDWPT awarded for lesser prairie chicken projects
The KDWPT on Oct. 2 was presented the Wildlife Restoration Award in the Wildlife Research category during The Wildlife Society's annual conference in Reno, Nev., for restoration projects involving the lesser prairie chicken.
The Wildlife Restoration Award recognizes outstanding projects supported by federal Wildlife Restoration funds — also known as Pittman-Robertson funds — and associated nonfederal matching funds. KDWPT Wildlife Division staff received the award for their research project, “Lesser Prairie-Chicken Habitat Use, Survival, and Recruitment.”
Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the KDWPT, accepted the award on behalf of the department.
“The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Project has been one of the most productive research projects ever funded by our department,” Fricke said in a news release, “and it exemplifies the success that can be attained when state wildlife agencies, researchers and landowners work together. The findings of this research will continue to influence lesser prairie chicken management for decades to come.”
Fricke said the project wouldn't have been possible without the cooperation of Kansas landowners.
“Because the vast majority of lesser prairie chickens occur on private property in Kansas, it was imperative that relationships were developed between researchers and landowners to make this project successful,” said Fricke. “Landowner access was key.”
For more on The Wildlife Society, visit wildlife.org.