By Mark Ruby, Wildlife Biologist for U.S. Forest Service, Swan Lake Ranger District
Hunting in grizzly bear country has made headlines in past years as each fall, bear conflicts with hunters are reported in Montana and the Northern Rocky Mountains. Outside of Choteau in 2015, a hunter attacked by a male grizzly bear pushed his arm down the bear’s throat to ward off the attacking animal. An Idaho bow hunter recently survived a bear attack near Livingston. In Wyoming, a bear attack by a sow grizzly and cub left a Florida hunter injured and his Wyoming hunting guide fatally mauled. In September on the eastern Rocky Mountain Front, a hunter was attacked after he surprised a female in a brushy creek bottom.
Hunting in grizzly country comes with risks. Typical hunting behavior such as moving quietly, purposely moving downwind of game, traveling in the early morning and evening, and sneaking along edges of dense vegetation increase risk of surprising a bear and triggering an attack. Hunters produce carcasses and gut piles that are attractive to hungry bears looking to put on calories in the fall as they prepare for the denning season. Being prepared can help minimize your risk of a bear ruining your hunt.
Gut piles and animal carcasses offer an appealing source of protein to hungry bears in the late fall. Bears are especially driven by their stomachs, targeting protein for weight gain before denning. Based on a study that used isotopes to estimate the amount of animal matter in grizzly bear diets in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the amount of animal matter increased in fall grizzly bear diets. For instance, intake of animal matter increased in female grizzlies from 14% to 21% in the fall in the North Fork of the Flathead River. Hunters should be wary of not just coming across gut piles in the woods, but also while field dressing their animal. MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommends dragging the carcass away from the gut pile after field dressing the animal. Hunters should try to be mindful of bears coming in on a carcass while field dressing an animal and if possible, have a partner keep a lookout. Grizzly bears are known to have a powerful sense of smell and will hone in on the scent of a recently killed animal. Additionally, bears have been known to be triggered by shots to come looking for a meal. Researchers in the southern part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been looking at fine scale movements of how grizzly bears respond to hunters by comparing the hunters’ GPS digital tracks with collared grizzly bear movement in the same area.
When a full animal can’t be packed out in single trip, consider frequently yelling on the return trip when approaching your meat to let a bear know you are coming. If possible, approach the area so you can have a clear view or use your binoculars to glass the area to avoiding surprising a bear. Consider leaving your meat away from a road or trail so other hunters don’t stumble unknowingly into a bear attractant. If a bear has claimed the meat, don’t risk your safety by trying to scare the animal away. Hunters on Marias Pass discharged shots into the air to scare a female grizzly off an elk carcass, which triggered her to charge an attack. Contact the game warden to let them know the situation.
There have been several instances of killed elk or deer that have been pulled out of truck beds by grizzly bears in the Swan Valley while hunting parties continue to try and fill tags. Be mindful when coming back to your truck after a hunt if you have left harvested game in the bed.
Surprising a grizzly bear is the leading cause for bear attacks. Surprise comes easily for hunters sneaking along forest edges or along creek bottoms while tracking game. Be vigilant of grizzly bear sign such as tracks, digging, and fresh scat. Bears often bed down for the day in thick, vegetated areas. When hiking between hunting locations, consider travel ways with clear sight lines.
Firearms are used as a defensive weapon against aggressive bears, however the downside to firearms is that they can be difficult to draw, aim, and fire accurately in a surprise confrontation. Unsurprisingly, wounded grizzly bears can offer a much larger threat than a surprised bear acting defensively. Grizzly attacks in dense vegetation can happen within just seconds leaving little time for reacting with a firearm. Bear spray has been shown to be a more effective tool in aggressive bear encounters in preventing human injury, according to studies across North America. The broad, shotgun like blast from bear spray can be deployed quickly with relatively little need to aim. Bear spray should be worn accessible on a pack or on your belt and can be effectively used when firing directly from the holster on your hip. Wind and rain can diminish the effectiveness of bear spray, but it is an essential tool for hunters to carry while hunting in grizzly country.
Once the snow falls during hunting season, it doesn’t necessarily mean grizzly bears head for their dens in the high country. Male grizzly bears have been observed to be active into January in the Swan Valley. Hunters should keep a clean camp and keep bear attractants in a hard-sided vehicle or hung 10 feet high and four feet out from a tree. Harvested game within a half mile of camp should be hung in this manner, but away from camp in a visible area, so hunters approaching their hanging deer or elk don’t stumble upon a bear.
We’re fortunate to be able to hunt in the wild public lands Montana provides and with that comes the experience of walking in the woods where the grizzlies roam. Both physical and mental preparation are key to minimizing risk while hunting in grizzly country and having a safe and successful hunt.