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Hunting Elk in Grizzly Country

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I live in Cody, Wyoming, and my elk hunts are conducted in the heart of grizzly habitat.  I’ve had my share of experience with them – both good and bad. I’ve had backpacks torn up, tents ripped, camps destroyed, and also been charged a few times. Many hunters are not willing to venture into grizzly country, but overall, I feel the risk is low if you’re smart. Fear instilled by media reports of bear maulings shouldn’t be your deciding factor in whether to hunt grizzly country or not. In actuality, hunting in grizzly bear habitat can add to your hunting experience and memories. I guarantee you will be more aware of your surroundings, especially while hiking in the dark!

 

Elk hunting in grizzly bear habitat does carry some risks, even if you are careful and take all precautions. As hunters, we are always at elevated risk due to the nature of what we are trying to do. Our goal is to be stealthy and not let elk – or other animals – know of our presence. This directly lends itself 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 is likely going to be a serious charge.

KNOW THE RISKS

One very disturbing problem that is happening now is grizzlies coming in to elk calls. I’ve personally documented these encounters yearly for the past 10 years. Let me just say how unnerving the experience is!

grizzly1Last 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 his bear spray from his belt. The bear was 50 yards out, caught the movement, and stopped. The next 5 minutes was a standoff and my nephew was able to capture a couple of photos before I stepped out and ran the bear off. Of course, the bear ran in the direction of the bull. I highly recommend that when you are calling in grizzly country, you should do so where you have good visibility and have bear spray out and ready before you start 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.

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 and 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 you wore while cooking.
  • Hang your food and toiletries at least 10 feet high and 4 feet from any tree a bear can climb.

When you are successful, follow these additional precautions:

  • Be prepared to take care of your elk swiftly, working on photographs and breaking the animal down and bagging up the meat as quickly as possible.
  • Buddy-up if possible, with one guy working while the other holds the legs and looks for bears.
  • Before packing out the first load of meat, move everything 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 it 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. Outside of 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 if he has found your meat cache, just silently back out and walk away. You’ve lost your meat. It is not worth the risk of trying to run the bear off (illegal in Wyoming) – the elk is his now.

lost bullBears claiming a carcass is common. Most occasions come after the elk has been processed and packed out. Once a bear claims it and feeds, he will proceed to rake up everything close and bury it, either lying on top or nearby to protect it from other scavengers or humans. This is an extremely dangerous situation and 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 ending with us backing off 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.

Occasionally, despite your best efforts, a bear may claim your kill before you finish your work. In 2014, three of us were breaking down a friend’s first 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. A sow grizzly and two full grown cubs were closing in fast on the very trail we’d walked with our scent in her nose. 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, but all that accomplished was her charging us twice. My friend lost his first archery bull.

Gun or bear spray?

Personally, I say take whatever you’re comfortable with, but I personally recommend bear spray. One caveat to that is that I will carry a gun during recovery, if possible. 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 though, practice getting it into action quickly. You’ll be surprised how fast a charging bear can be on you.

With all of this talk about the potential risks, don’t be dissuaded from hunting grizzly country. Common sense and adhering to a few basic rules can be your best defense, and you can have a great elk hunt, even in grizzly country.

  • Robb

    Good article! As Grizzlies continue to grow and move into new territory the suggestions in this article become more important for all of us to consider and do. Thanks for talking about something none of us hope happens.

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