Elk Hunting in Grizzly Country

Ron Niziolek_Grizzlies_800x400

Living and hunting in the heart of grizzly country in Cody,Wyoming, I’ve had my share of experiences with them. I’ve had backpacks torn up, tents ripped, camps destroyed, and have been charged on three occasions. My dad was bowhunting elk with me for two of those charges, so I kind of consider him to be bad luck!

On a serious note, elk hunting in grizzly bear habitat does carry some risk, even if you are careful and take necessary precautions. Hunters are at an elevated risk because of 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. That 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, it’s likely to result in a serious charge.

One very disturbing trend when elk hunting in grizzly country is bears coming in to elk calls. My dad and I had a surprise encounter with a large grizzly at about 10 feet one day while still hunting down an elk trail through the thick timber. We were calling every once in awhile, and the griz charged up from behind us. It was only my dad’s quick turn and yells that made the bear veer off. We had zero time to get bear spray – if the bear had wanted us, we were dead.

This year, I was calling elk for my buddy when all of a sudden he jumped to his feet and frantically waved me out of the brush. He had watched a large bear run a smaller one off, then head toward my elk calls. The closer the bear got, the more intent he became, until he lumbered into the brush about a hundred yards from me, coming in fast. Another friend called in 3 grizzlies this year, and he stopped one very aggressive charge with pepper spray at less than one yard. He was spraying into the bears eyes and mouth at that range. Let me tell you, it takes nerves of steel to hold your ground and do that. I highly recommend that when you are calling in grizzly country, do so where you have good visibility and have your bear spray out and ready before you start your calling sequence.

Whenever your hunting destination is in bear country, it is up to you to be aware of all rules and restrictions in the area. Even if there are no signs posted, please note the following precautions around camp:

  • Keep a clean camp. Bears have extremely keen noses and will find your camp, especially if there are 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 4 feet out (on a limb) from any tree a bear can climb.

Follow these precautions if you are successful:

  • Be prepared to quickly take care of your elk, working swiftly on photographs and breaking the animal down and bagging up the meat.
  • It may sound silly, but when I have help, we take turns with one person working on the elk and the other watching 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 quarters where you can see them from a distance to see if they have been disturbed. If possible, try to get a visual on the carcass as well before re-approaching. 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, you may have to just walk away. It is not worth the risk of trying to run the bear off – the elk is his now.

Gun or bear spray? I say take whatever you’re comfortable with, but I personally recommend the spray. You can get it into action fast if you practice and can even flick the safety off and spray from your hip if needed. Whichever you plan to use, practice getting it into action quickly. You’ll be surprised how fast a charging bear can be on you.

There is great elk hunting to be found in grizzly country. Ultimately, by being prepared you can minimize the chances of a bear ruining your elk hunt. Be smart, and be safe.