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Time for Personal Responsibility in Bear Country

Yellowstone grizzly. Photo: NPS.

Hunters are afield in the quest for winter meat and it’s time for self-reflection and responsibility. The connection between hunting and grizzly bear-human conflicts is well documented. Many occur when hunters retrieve a carcass, only to find it has been appropriated by a grizzly bear. An alarming number of human injury incidents have occurred to bow hunters, with four in the Gravelly Mountains in one week this fall. In each case firearms were used to break off contact.

Following the mauling of a bow hunter in 2010, Game Warden Sam Sheppard said bears were attracted to the area because hunters had been leaving gut piles. “It’s kind of a little cycle,” he said. “You have a fair number of elk, get some elk hunters, elk hunters have some success and put some carcasses on the ground, with carcasses on the ground, you have bears.” (Associated Press 9/21/2010).

Bears are not stalking people. Most conflicts are the result of surprise encounters. Reaching up to 800 pounds, a surprised, frightened grizzly bear can do lethal damage in mere seconds. Bow hunters quietly stalk, often alone and without bear spray, through landscapes which may be littered with gut piles. These are protein jackpots for bears and other wildlife, who quickly remember this annual food source. It’s a recipe for conflicts. Moreover, grizzly bears hunker down in “day beds,” often in thick forest and underbrush. I know from personal experience that startling a sleeping grizzly bear is frightening for bear and man.

Personal risk and challenge are part of the human psyche, yet each bloody event raises the stakes against the grizzly bear. Defense of life and management removals are significant sources of grizzly bear mortality and are sharply on the rise.

It’s time for proactive measures including a “hang it or haul it” rule prohibiting leaving carcasses on the ground overnight, including gut piles. I co-signed an official request to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to require hunters to carry bear spray. The state used technical arguments to reject it, ignoring common sense and public safety. National Forests in the Greater Yellowstone rejected a similar request. We are required by the State to wear life jackets when boating because it saves lives. Hunters must wear hunter orange. You can’t spotlight wildlife and technologies deemed unsportsmanlike have been banned.

Yet, we all know voluntary actions are not enough as it only takes a few non-volunteers to raise the risks for all. Would everyone wear hunter orange if it wasn’t required? So at least for this Fall, it comes down to personal responsibility and common sense. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Quietly stalking through underbrush and deadfall with limited visibility is a bad idea. Avoid hunting alone and at dawn and dusk when bears are more active. Couples should consider taking turns hunting, with the other close by on the lookout. If you must leave part of a carcass overnight, have company when you retrieve it, including a lookout. Have bear spray out and ready. If the carcass is buried with dirt and sticks or there is sign of bear presence, leave. Elk steaks are awesome, but not worth dying for.

The grizzly bear is an indicator of ecosystem health and human-caused mortality has greatly increased. Most is avoidable and preventable, yet bear-human conflicts cannot be totally eliminated, especially with the skyrocketing levels of human use in backcountry areas that are the bear’s stronghold. That is, surprise encounters will occur. However, we do have the ability to change the odds through our own behaviors, while we demand responsible leadership on this issue at the state and federal level.

More information: BeBearAware.org

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Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula involved in grizzly bear management and recovery issues since the 1980s. He is co-author of Road Density and Grizzly Bears in the Ninemile Demographic Connectivity Area, Montana.  

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