Stolen mounted polar bear recovered at R.L. Jones Jr. Riverside Airport after being lost for 3 years

Posted at 5:04 PM, Aug 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-05 21:38:35-04

After going missing for three years, game wardens successfully seized a full-size mounted polar bear and returned it to its rightful owner.

2 Works for You was able to witness as the decades-old bear was found inside an airport hangar Thursday night.

The R.L. Jones Jr. Riverside Airport has been home to the bear since the 1990s but for the last three years, its exact location has been a mystery.

Now the Gilstrap family says they're grateful to have their $50,000 heirloom back.

“‘Turn on your TV! Watch the news! They’re getting that bear!' and I turned it on and watch the bear being taken out and it was just such a relief. My hands were shaking,” said Bill Gilstrap, Jr.

Bill Gilstrap, still shocked to have his father's polar bear back.

To understand what it means for his family, you have to go all the way back to Alaska in 1969.

“He struck a deal with Don to go on a polar bear hunt, the ultimate hunt,” said Gilstrap.

It ended with the ultimate catch. Bill Sr. snagged the bear just three years before they became federally protected.

“It was his pride and joy. That was something, he got a lot of notoriety for it, especially in Mayes County,” said Gilstrap.

From City Banks in Alaska to motorcycle shops in prior, the bear spent the next several decades on display for all to see up close.

Then – following a display at the jones airport, it vanished and Gilstrap's phone calls to the hangar went unanswered.

“Oh, I’d like to drop to the floor [sic],” he said. “I mean, that was my worst nightmare to think that somebody would actually, after all these years of moving the bear around and letting people display it and everything, that someone somewhere would actually try to keep that bear.”

While some might see the bear as just a statue, game warden Carlos Gomez describes how it is much more.

“It may not be drugs, it may not be cannons or missiles, or machine guns, but it's still a heavily protected, regulated piece of wildlife,” said Gomez.

Using original ownership documents from 1969, the Gilstraps and game wardens were able to track the bear to a completely different hangar in the airport.

“Someone else had latched onto it and decided it was theirs,” said Gomez. “It is illegal to have if you don't have all of the proper documentation.”

The bear immediately became evidence in a possible case of illegal possession. Wardens say charges could come soon.

The Gilstraps say it's still the ultimate catch and once again it’s been caught and reunited as a family legacy.

“He’s got a moose head, and a caribou, and I’m going to put them all together and keep a close eye on them,” Gilstrap said.

The family says they plan on keeping the bear close for now, but the goal is to put it on display again in the future for all of Green Country to see, just how Bill Gilstrap, Sr. would've wanted it.