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When Manning started competing in taxidermy, it was with birds. The cost in labor isn't much if you have tools like mounting stands, scalpels, needles and thread. If you have no other work to do, you can put together a bird mount in a day for $15. Competitions are scored on artistic merit and anatomy, among other things. Judges are taxidermists who excel in that category. In 2001, Manning went to the National Taxidermy Convention in Columbia, Mo., and won North American Waterfowl Champion, North American Turkey Champion and National Taxidermist of the Year.
He decided to go bigger. Manning's friend John Ottman, a worldwide hunter whom he's known since high school, went up to Canada on a hunt. Eskimo tribes are allowed a quota of polar bears by Canadian Fish & Game in order to manage them in certain areas, and, at that time, the ban on bringing polar bears into the U.S. had been lifted. Ottman took a bush plane to a far north hamlet called Holman. An Eskimo guide took him another 100 miles into a remote area with a nine-dog sled team.
"There's a quota, and out of 16 hunts only four were taken," says Ottman. "Most of the other hunts are weathered out; they turn into ground blizzards or the ice starts to break and you just can't travel. ... We were the last hunters...I was fortunate to get one."
He and Manning are both sensitive to the fact that some people don't like the idea of shooting a polar bear, although Ottman says he believes that the experience, the information gathered and the economic benefit it has for Eskimo communities are important. Back at Holman, after Ottman shot the polar bear, the Eskimos had a celebration and cooked the meat from the polar bear's feet. The 30 large kits the size of duffel bags that they brought on the hunt were filled with fat from the hindquarters, the tongue, the testicles, the liver, and the kidneys, which were dissected to collect information about the bear. Ottman says that a council of Eskimos sat with Canadian biologists and reviewed the information, monitoring mercury levels in the bears, among other considerations.
Ottman says that taxidermy gives him a naturalist's look into the life and anatomy of the animal. Memorialzing the experience is one part of it, but it's not about mounting a piece for bragging rights.
"I didn't do the hunt just to say I got a polar bear. I want to see the world through the eyes of hunting. I want to hunt in ways that could support these small communities and capture good information about wildlife."
Taxidermying the polar bear took Ottman, Manning and Hoffman at least 120 hours. A polar bear's hide is typically so heavy that it takes that many people to maneuver it off and on the form to give it a custom fit. And then they mounted it on a granite platform and made a Plexiglas, resin and Styrofoam structure that emulated ice with the blue of the ocean shining through.
"The polar bear was fun," says Ottman, who says the cost of the mount was comparable to that of a mid-sized car. "It turned into a cult. We had books on polar bears and pictures. It was insane. But Dale's incredibly talented, and so is Tyler. I'm an average taxidermist...Dale knows what it takes to make it perfect."
In 2007, Manning and Tyler Hoffman traveled to the world taxidermy championships in Reno, where about 20 countries were represented, from Europe, Australia and North America. Manning and Hoffman brought the polar bear, hoping it would get some recognition—and it did: They won the collective artists award and first place for large mammals. Their bear mount also landed on the cover of Breakthrough, the taxidermy trade magazine edited by Larry Bloomquist, who has called it his favorite cover of all the magazine's issues.
For Manning, that cover was a landmark, "kind of like being on the cover of Rolling Stone," he says.
Manning is clearly proud of his wins, but he's also modest. It takes three interviews to get him to explain why he stopped competing on the state level.
"I've been competing for 40 years as the bird guy," he says. "Then I did the polar bear thing, which blew everybody out of the water, because I'm the bird guy." He'd started competing with big game in 2005, but when his polar bear won the world large mammal award, he felt challenged. "I was getting shit that I could only compete in big game once, and that I got lucky with the bear," he says, smiling slyly. "And so then it's like, 'I'll show you.'"
A few years later, he bagged a large ram up Rock Creek. The ram had been in rut so the meat was no good, but Manning turned it into a stunning piece of taxidermy, not just because it's lifelike but also because of the mechanics. The ram is leaping off a rock with only one foot planted on the base and the rest of its body, including its large horns, hanging to one side of the center of gravity. It makes no sense, physics-wise, until you know how Manning did it.
The rock habitat is actually painted foam cast from real rock. (Manning's perfection of that rock look—whether it be mountain rock, barnacled sea rocks or riverbed rocks—propelled him to start a faux-rock-making business on the side.) From the rock, steel tubing runs up through the grounded leg and is bent at all the joints up to the hip. At the hip it goes into the middle of the body and then, in the middle of the body, there's a piece of one-by-four steel stock that's welded from there and runs into the front shoulder.
"You have to have a vision," he says. "You can't just mount a standing duck, put it on a piece of driftwood and expect it to go win at a show. It's gotta be suspended out, flying against the sky."
And here was a ram practically flying. At the 2009 Montana state taxidermy competition, the awards stacked up. Manning won Best of Show from the judges. He won Taxidermist Choice, an award voted on by his peers. He won the People's Choice from the viewing audience. He won the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep Award, Montana Outfitters Guide Association Award and the Fish and Game Award. Because he was sitting at the back of the room, he had to keep coming up for every award. After a while, he asked Tyler Hoffman to go in his stead so he could leave.
"It was weird," he says now. "I won about every award that you could win at the show—and it was embarrassing. It was out of my control."
Pressed about why he thinks that ram got so much attention, he takes a breath.
"A lot of thought went into it," he finally says, smiling.