Big game hunters, it’s your time to rule the forests. Archery seasons are underway, and general big-game seasons will be soon throughout the New West. Thousands of hunters will be crawling around grizzly country in the predawn darkness, alone, as quietly as possible, into the wind and smelling like stale elk pee. If they have a successful hunt, they’ll fill the wind with the smell of high-quality grizzly food.
That’s a big problem, and it’s getting bigger every year – for both hunters and bears.
Every hunting season, we see the news of hunters, often bow hunters, involved in a bloody encounter with grizzly bears. The result is often serious injuries to the hunter and almost always at least one dead bear.
The point is, it’s dangerous out there, for hunters and bears. Every year, the grizzly expands into new range, into areas where hunters have not had to think grizzly, and more and more bears key in on hunters as a provider of quality food, namely gut piles and carcasses, especially those left overnight in the woods. Plus, during autumn, bears are hyperphagic – in a physiological panic to put on enough fat to survive a five-month fast under a snowbank on a north-facing slope.
One could, in fact, argue that hunters do everything possible to seduce grizzlies into an encounter, so is it a miracle there aren’t many more dead and injured hunters?
Perhaps, but two things keep the number of incidents down. First, most hunters are extremely aware of their surroundings, and this training and built-in alertness prevents many encounters. Second, the grizzly deserves praise for being so incredibly aware of its surroundings that the bear can detect and avoid the most stealthy hunters stalking through the night, making no noise, and reeking of artificial buck scent.
The punchline is: hunters must think grizzly, both to protect themselves and to prevent incidents leading to the death of grizzly bears. The species has made a nice comeback from the brink of extinction and may soon be removed from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, so hunters should do their part to keep human-caused mortality low.
One way hunters can do their part is rely on bear pepper spray instead of firearms for protection. Recent research by Alaskan bear expert Tom Smith clearly answers the question many hunters have: Is bear spray safer than guns when charged by a bear? In 72 incidents where people used bear spray to defend themselves from an aggressive bear attack in Alaska, 98 percent were uninjured and all who were injured only had minor injuries. In 350 incidents where people used firearms, 40 percent were injured or killed. That 40 percent includes 23 fatalities, 16 severely injured, and 48 persons with minor injuries.
Grizzlies have probably always keyed on hunters as a source of food, either for gut piles or unwatched carcasses, but now, it’s more serious because we have more bears in more places. In addition, some biologists believe each generation of bears gets smarter about getting food from hunters, now even interpreting a rifle shot as a dinner bell.
Hunters should think grizzly everywhere in western Montana, northwestern Wyoming and in Idaho next to Yellowstone and on the panhandle near Canada. But the most serious problem is heavily hunted areas like on the north and south edge of Yellowstone National Park in the Blackfoot Valley and Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. Like it or not, the opening of hunting season is no different than the salmon run starting up in Alaska. Bears habitually move to popular big game hunting areas expecting to find easy meals.
Based on the low number of encounters, grizzlies are either remarkably tolerant of those thousands of smelly hunters or intelligent enough to avoid almost all of them. But the trend, more hunters and more bears in the same spots, tells us that we can no longer be nonchalant about the risk.
Footnote: For a list of specific actions hunters should or should not take, check with your state wildlife agency or go to NewWest.Net and search for “Think Grizzly.”