It Does Not Always End Well
BY LISA BARIL
Thirty years ago, so few grizzly bears roamed southwestern Montana that their image barely registered in the minds of hunters during their annual autumn quest to fill their freezers or tag the bull of a lifetime. They didn’t worry much about surprising a sow with cubs or accidentally luring a bruin with elk bugles or cow calls. Nor were hunters uneasy about the growing number of gut piles fellow hunters left behind as the season advanced. And even field dressing a deer or leaving an elk overnight wasn’t much cause for apprehension.
But today biologists estimate that about 1,000 grizzly bears reside in the Greater Yellowstone Eco-system. And as the grizzly bear population increased so has the potential for encounters between hunters and bears. Biologists report that between the years 1992 and 2000 more than half (54 percent) of the 35 grizzly bear-inflicted human injuries in the GYE involved hunters.
“No other recreational group is more at risk of an attack by a bear than hunters,” says Frank van Manen, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader. The Study Team is responsible for research and monitoring of grizzly bears in the GYE with representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Although hunters are usually hyper aware of their surroundings, they generally ignore every other rule of avoiding an encounter, as they must to achieve success. A hunter doesn’t hike down a beaten path, singing their favorite song with their best friends in tow. Instead, they set out well before daybreak, often alone, for a favored hunting spot deep in the wilderness. They camouflage themselves and hide behind shrubs. They use scent eliminating soap or even sprinkle their boots with cow elk estrus. They hike into the wind, and are quiet and secretive.
Sometimes hunters bugle for elk or use cow calls to entice a bull. Sometimes those calls attract bears.
In 2007, a bow hunter was cow calling for elk in Beattie Gulch at the northern edge of Yellowstone Park, just south of Gardiner, an area notorious for grizzly bears. According to the Great Falls Tribune, instead of attracting elk, the hunter lured in a sow with three cubs. Spotting the grizzly, first the hunter hid behind a tree, but as the bear got closer he knew he was in trouble and began climbing. That’s when the grizzly attacked, biting his feet and legs before pulling him down and ripping the tree in half. The hunter then did what he’d been taught—he played dead. The sow bit him in his leg and back before leaving with her cubs. The hunter laid there, afraid to move, for fifteen minutes before making the two mile trek back to his vehicle and the hospital where he underwent surgery on his leg.
In a 2012 incident, a man and his wife were archery hunting southeast of Ennis when they called in a grizzly with two cubs, according to the Missoulian. Hiding behind a shrub and using a cow caller, the hunter heard movement behind him. When he turned around he saw a grizzly bear with two cubs, but couldn’t reach his bear spray before she attacked. The sow bit the man on the arm and head, then ran away.
Both hunters and grizzly bears pursue the same animal during autumn—rutting bull elk. Elk provide an incredible food source for grizzly bears as they fatten up for hibernation. Grizzlies take advantage of distracted and exhausted bulls, especially those that are injured, by ambushing them. Occasionally, though, it is the hunter who is ambushed.
Other attacks result from surprise encounters. In October 2014, an elk hunter from Minnesota shot and killed a grizzly bear after she charged him and another hunter in Lewis and Clark National Forest. The sow had two cubs and was defending a moose carcass.
While horrific and terrifying, these attacks were the result of either surprise encounters or cases of mistaken identity. Despite a hunter’s increased risk, attacks are uncommon and rarely result in death. More often, these attacks lead to the death of the bear.
“It is remarkable we don’t see a very high number of conflicts and we want to keep it that way,” van Manen told the Pioneer.
In a two-year study, begun this autumn, van Manen and collaborators collared eight grizzly bears to track their movements in Grand Teton National Park, where hunting elk is allowed by special permit. They also supplied hunters with GPS units to carry in the field. Researchers will compare grizzly bear movements with hunter movements to see where they overlap. With so many grizzly bears and hunters on the landscape, van Manen wants to know how bears respond to hunters and the gut piles they leave behind.
The study was precipitated by two grizzly encounters in which a hunter was attacked in 2011, receiving minor injuries, and another incident the following year in which a hunting party of three shot and killed a grizzly bear that charged them.
“It’s too early to tell if there are any patterns,” says van Manen, but one bear did follow the trail of hunters this autumn. “The bear may have simply followed the trail because it presents a typical travel route, and there may have been no response to the presence of the hunters,” says van Manen. The researchers are still gathering data, but the prospect of grizzlies following hunters is chilling.
Some believe that bears respond to the sound of gun shots in the Pavlovian sense—the “ringing the dinner bell” theory. Van Manen, though, says this is unlikely, since bears rely so heavily on their sense of smell rather than sight or hearing. Furthermore, not every shot results in a kill, so it would be a high risk situation with a low possibility of reward.
Jerry Ryder, a retired Yellowstone Park ranger and hunting guide for Hell’s A-Roarin Outfitters in Gardiner, Montana, agrees.
“A gunshot may alert a bear that a gut pile might be available, but we’ve never had one come charging in on us after a kill. Bears avoid us if they have the opportunity,” Ryder told the Pioneer.
Bears are slaves to their stomachs and have learned that gut piles provide a tasty, high energy food package at a time when they are eating huge amounts to prepare for hibernation. “It’s an incredible resource for bears,” says van Manen, “but bears that key in on gut piles left behind by hunters are still likely to display some level of caution any time humans are around.” He says that hunters are usually long gone by the time a bear finds gut piles, but not always.
Ryder recalled an incident, in which two hunters were hauling an elk on a sled, when a grizzly bear approached. The hunters abandoned their elk, and when they came in the next day, the elk was gone—probably dragged away by the bear.
These occurrences are relatively rare. In Ryder’s 60 years of hunting and guiding in Montana he’s never had a bear come to an elk while he was field dressing it. Even when he’s had to leave an elk in the field overnight, he’s seen no bears on the carcass the next day, although sometimes he sees signs of bears in the vicinity like tracks or scat.
“I usually throw something like a coat on the elk—something that smells like a human—and that seems to keep them away,” says Ryder. Despite often seeing bear sign, Ryder says he’s had no real negative experiences with bears while hunting—a fact he attributes to hunting with horses.
Despite the thousands of hunters who do everything we are told not to do in grizzly country, few of them encounter bears at all, but those stories do not make headlines.
Still, that doesn’t quell the bear-anoia one might feel creeping around quietly in the dark stalking elk. The risk of an encounter is still present, but there are many things hunters can do to minimize this risk, like hunting in pairs and having bear spray readily accessible with knowledge of how to use it.
Once an animal is killed van Manen recommends getting the carcass out as soon as possible. If it must be left in the field, move it to an open area where it is more visible, or, better yet, hang it in a tree 10 feet off the ground, although this is not always possible. At the very least move the gut pile 100 yards or more away. In his book Mark of the Grizzly, Scott McMillion suggests setting up a portable electric fence around the carcass or using a heat and motion detecting “critter getter”. When the device detects motion it sets off bright, flashing lights and loud noises that may deter a bear. And when, as a hunter, you come back to retrieve the carcass, bring friends, make lots of noise, and observe the carcass from a distance. Should there be a disturbance, definitely do not approach or try to haze a bear away from the carcass.
About 1,000 bears wander the GYE, and thousands of hunters use much of the same landscape. During autumn, gut piles left by hunters attract bears. Because of this overlap, encounters between hunters and bears are bound to occur, yet encounters are rare. Ultimately, van Manen hopes the results of his study will make the landscape safer for both humans and grizzly bears.
Whenever we leave the relative safety of our backyards, paved sidewalks, subdivisions, and ranchettes for the national forests and parks that surround us, we find risk—the risk of breaking an ankle on loose rock, the risk of being bitten by a rattlesnake, the risk of getting lost, and the risk of running into a grizzly bear. The challenge then, is one of humans accepting the inherent risk of heading into the wilderness, and taking proper precautions, if humans and grizzly bears are to coexist.
Lisa Baril is a wildlife biologist and freelance writer living in Mammoth, Wyoming. Learn more at www.lisabaril.com.