Bear Aware: Elk Hunting in Grizzly Country

Bear Aware: Elk Hunting in Grizzly Country

You can share the elk timber with dangerous bears if you're smart and prepared.

The bull blew out, crashed through the timber, and left me swearing at myself. Dang, I was close, but that crunchy pinecone did me in. I took a few deep breaths, put my arrow away, and decided to stay after the bull and his herd. I took off on a looping run through the timber, trying to close the gap again. My bow was in my right hand as I snaked through the maze of downfalls, using every open space or trail available to make time. I was silently trotting on a trail, and when I rounded a large pine, everything went into slow motion. Grizzly. Big grizzly! My bow hit the ground, bear spray came free from the holster, and the oversized boar charged…the other way, looking over his shoulder. He looked as big as a Volkswagen.

I can’t stress enough how fast all of this occurred, and everything I did was pure instinct from lots of practice and experience. Actually, I surprised myself because when I practice, I flip the safety off the bear spray and shoot from the hip most of the time. This time, with my bow in my right hand, I just let it go, and I guess since my hand was level with the spray, I pulled it from the holster without thinking. Maybe I was lucky the bear was already facing away from me. I’ll never know, and I’m thankful he ran in the other direction. It was September 2018.

Risk

Many hunters are not willing to venture into grizzly country, and although the risk is low if you’re smart, there is always a risk. Fear instilled by media reports of bear maulings, or even by this article, shouldn’t be your deciding factor regarding whether to hunt in grizzly country or not. I believe hunting in grizzly bear habitat can add to your hunting experience and memories. I guarantee at a minimum, you will be more aware of your surroundings, especially while hiking in the dark.

Hunters are always at elevated risk due to the nature of what we’re trying to do. We are stealthy, and we try not to let elk or other animals know of our presence. That lends itself directly to the possibility of close encounters with bears. If it happens to be a grizzly protecting a kill, or a sow protecting her cubs, the outcome will likely be a serious charge and a possible mauling if you’re not prepared and quick to react.


Bad Year

My Wyoming elk hunts are conducted in the heart of grizzly habitat. I’ve had my share of experiences with the bears, both good and bad, and definitely worse in recent years. For whatever reason, 2018 was a bad year in every sense. On September 9, my nephew, Sam, and another buddy and I had hiked up a new drainage for an evening hunt. As we got close to our destination, we heard and saw a Game and Fish airplane circling about a mile west of us. We figured it was some type of bear issue, and with daylight starting to fade and no elk activity, we headed back out. We hadn’t gone far before meeting a game warden, Forest Service, and search and rescue guys hiking in. There’d been a bad bear attack not far away. The victim had been life-flighted out in very tough shape, but a buddy who had stayed with him was now alone, except for the airplane circling. These guys were trying to reach him before dark to walk him out. Our help wasn’t needed, so we kept hiking.


grizzly bear walking through clearing in woods
This grizzly came in to the sound of our elk calls — an alarming occurrence that is happening more frequently.

After reaching our pickup, we drove to a trailhead where another buddy was hunting. His truck was gone, but a Game and Fish truck was there and drove out ahead of us. Soon, they stopped in the middle of the road, and two guys hopped out in the only place on the mountain with cell service. Turns out they were two other buddies of the victim who had hiked out for help. Luckily, they had met someone on the trail who ran out for help, because they got lost themselves and had just made it out at dark. They didn’t have a flashlight or any survival gear, just a can of bear spray each. So, while we visited with the warden, we listened to them call their wives and the victim’s wife. Listening to the emotional calls and hearing them say, “We don’t know. He was alive when we left him,” was pretty darn sobering. We gave them all the extra drinks and food we had, told them where we were camped, and offered to help them in any way possible. Through further contact with them, we learned that their buddy survived, had three surgeries in Billings, Montana, and then returned home to have several more.


Another bad episode in 2018 happened to a buddy and his wife. I’ll call them Joe and Sara for protection of their real names. I almost stayed and hunted with them the afternoon of September 30, but instead drove home early in the afternoon.

Just before dark, Joe and Sara left their truck in a hurry to get to a certain meadow. As they dropped off the road. Sara said, “Watch out for grizzlies.” Joe had his bow in his left hand and bugle tube in his right. He then tucked the bugle tube under his left arm to keep his right hand free. Ten steps later, he saw movement 10 yards ahead, recognized it as a grizzly cub when it crashed off, pulled his pistol, and shot the sow one time at seven yards as she charged. She roared as it rocked her, whirled, and took off. Joe never shot again, even though his 10mm Glock 20 carried 15 rounds. He later said that if he’d tried to reach the bear spray on his chest, attached to his binocular harness, he wouldn’t have had time. They backed out to the truck, pistols out, fully expecting her to come again. Needless to say, their elk season came to an end right there. They found a warden and reported it. I returned the next day with Joe to meet the Game & Fish and Fish & Wildlife investigators at the site. The snow on the ground confirmed the story, and no punitive action was taken.

Using Elk Calls

One very disturbing problem happening now is grizzlies coming in to elk calls. I’ve documented these encounters yearly for the past 10 years, and they are happening more frequently. Let me just say how unnerving the experience is. Last fall, I was calling for a friend in heavy timber, when a branch cracked in the direction of a bugle. My buddy squared off and raised his bow for the pending shot. Suddenly, he hissed, “Grizzly!” and fumbled the can of bear spray from his belt. The bear was 50 yards out, caught his movement, and stopped. The next five minutes was a standoff, and my nephew was able to capture a couple of photos before I stepped out and ran the bear off. I highly suggest that when you are calling in grizzly country, do so where you have good visibility and have bear spray out and ready before starting your calling sequence. You might be tempted to put your back to some trees for protection, but I believe it’s more important to have visibility in all directions.


Know The Rules

Whenever your hunting destination is in bear country, it is your responsibility to be aware of all rules and restrictions in the area. Check the Forest Service rules, as well as those of the Game & Fish Department. Even if there are no signs posted, please heed the following precautions around camp:

  • Keep a clean camp. Bears have extremely keen noses and will find your camp, especially if there are any lingering food odors.
  • Store and cook your food at least 100 yards from where you plan to sleep.
  • Do not sleep in the same clothes that you wore while cooking.
  • Hang your food and toiletries at least 10-feet high, and four feet from any tree a bear can climb.

Follow these precautions if you are successful:

  • Be prepared to take care of your elk, working swiftly on photographs and breaking the animal down and bagging up the meat.
  • Buddy up if possible, with one guy working while the other holds elk legs and looks for bears.
  • Before packing out the first load of meat, move everything that you plan to pack out at least 100 yards away from the carcass, and hang it in a tree if possible.
  • Be sure to hang the meat where you can look it over from a distance to see if it has been disturbed. If possible, try to see the carcass as well. Besides a mama bear protecting her cubs, there probably isn’t a situation more dangerous than surprising a bear protecting a carcass.
  • If a bear finds your elk before you do or has found your meat cache, just silently back out and walk away. You lost your meat. It is not worth the risk of trying to run the bear off (illegal in Wyoming) — the elk now belongs to the bear. Come back in about a week if you want to retrieve the antlers.

Bad Stuff Happens

Bears claiming a carcass is common, with most occurrences being after the elk has been processed and you’ve begun to pack out. Once a bear claims the carcass and feeds, the hungry animal will proceed to rake up everything close by and bury it, either lying on top or nearby to protect it from other scavengers. This is an extremely dangerous situation, and it’s why you should move meat bags away from the carcass. My dad and I surprised a bear on a kill, and it made for a tense few seconds that ended with us backing off with bear spray in hand after a bluff charge. I also used the wind and elevation once to my advantage to photograph and film an extremely large grizzly on the carcass of my wife’s bull. One determined bear a couple of years ago even found the lower legs we’d cut off the bull and tossed away and brought them back to the buried cache.

Ron Niziolek with 2018 bull elk
Grizzlies are a fact of life in places where I hunt elk, including where I killed my 2018 bull.

Occasionally, despite your best efforts, a bear will claim your kill before you’ve even finished working on it. In 2014, three of us were breaking down a friend’s first archery bull in heavy timber. We made no effort to be quiet while working, and we were constantly talking. With half of the bull skinned and caped, we looked up after hearing a bugling bull close by. That bull saved one or all of us from being mauled or killed, because a sow grizzly and two full-grown cubs were closing in fast down the very trail we’d walked. By the time I reached for my spray, she was only 15 yards from us as we backed away. It was too close, too fast, and too dangerous for spray. We backed out to the safety of a clearing 40 yards away to regroup. We hollered and threw rocks, but that just resulted in her charging us twice. My friend lost his bull.


Gun Or Bear Spray?

I say take whatever you’re comfortable with, but I personally recommend spray. One caveat to that is now, if possible, I will carry a gun during the recovery. You can get bear spray into action fast if you practice, and can even flick the safety off and spray from your hip if needed. Whatever you plan to use, practice getting it into action quickly. That’s the number-one takeaway from this article. PRACTICE! You’ll be surprised how fast a charging bear can be on you.

Don’t be dissuaded from hunting elk in grizzly country. Common sense and adhering to a few basic rules can be your best defense.

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