A pinecone drops to the ground with a soft thud. A calm breeze causes a branch to brush against the side of the tent. A mouse scurries across the tarp. In the daylight, none of these common elk camp events cause any need for worry. In the dark of night, however, these sounds – and our accompanying imaginations – become amplified. Set up your elk camp in grizzly country, and these sounds have been the cause of more sleepless nights than many of us care to admit.
I remember my first elk hunting trip into grizzly bear country. We opted to stay in a Forest Service campsite, complete with bear-proof food boxes, bear-proof dumpsters, and a concrete outhouse whose steel door bore the permanent scars left behind by the long, sharp claws of a grizzly – on the inside of the outhouse!
Camping in a bear-wise campground would remove one of our primary concerns with hunting elk in grizzly country, which in turn would allow us to get a good night’s rest. We had even brought along a bear fence, just for added reassurance.
That reassurance was undermined slightly though, when we found that the bear fence was about 2 feet short of stretching all the way around the perimeter of the tent – a requirement for electrical connectivity. No worries. All of the other campsite precautions would be more than adequate.
As we retired to the tent on that first night, all of our anticipation was focused on the elk we would be hunting in a few short hours. However, it didn’t take long for that focus to change.
A pinecone dropped to the ground with a soft thud. Was that the sound of a padded footstep? I held my breath in the pitch-black darkness, straining to hear more. A calm breeze escorted a tree branch along the side of the tent, brushing the rain fly every so slightly. If that is a bear, he is close. The breeze faded and the branch retreated, again brushing back along the side of the tent. The resulting sound resembled the breathing of an animal, just a few inches from my head. I hadn’t exhaled in over a minute, afraid that the sound of the sleeping bag settling as my chest sank from an exhaled breath would prevent me from hearing another movement from outside the tent. Or worse, alert the bear that something was alive on the inside of the tent. Just then, a mouse scurried across the tarp we had placed under the tent to provide protection to the tent floor. My mind immediately conjured up a detailed image of that soft, padded bear foot stepping onto the tarp as the sensitive nose of the bear pressed against the side of the tent. Still I held my breath.
It was only when the mouse scurried back across the tarp that I realized I wasn’t in danger, and finally allowed the air I had been desperately holding within to escape my lungs. I had survived the first 5 minutes of camping in bear country, but with my senses now on full alert, every audible bump in the night was accompanied by an imagined threat lurking just outside the tent. I nearly drifted off to sleep 2 or 3 times, only to be brought back to full alert by a tree creaking or by a hunting partner shifting in his sleeping bag. A light, restless sleep was all I was able to manage those first few nights, but by the third night – and with no grizzly bear encounters – I was sleeping like I normally do in elk camp.
Since that first foray into grizzly country, I’ve managed to talk my hunting partners into several more trips to hunt elk in similar areas. And those first couple of nights are always accompanied by a heightened sense of our surroundings, which means a couple nights of less-than-average sleep quality.
Hunting and camping in grizzly bear habitat brings several challenges, but it can also come with many benefits. While it definitely takes an extra amount of preparation and caution, fewer people feel comfortable hunting in these areas, often reducing the hunting pressure and sometimes even increasing the odds of drawing a tag. And while the risk is always present, there are a few things you can do to drastically reduce the chances of an encounter with a bear.
There are three main areas where you could have issues with a grizzly bear while hunting elk: in camp, while hunting/hiking, and post-success. Since each area comes with different risks and precautions, I’ll break them out separately below.
Bears have incredibly sensitive noses, and they are always hungry and always looking for an easy meal. Most encounters with bears in camp are typically the result of food or food odors. It’s critical that these odors are minimized or eliminated. If a bear doesn’t smell food in your camp, the chances of an unwanted visit go down dramatically. Here are a few safety suggestions to implement in camp to reduce your chances of an encounter:
While it can be unnerving to consider the thought of having a grizzly bear come into your hunting camp, detailed attention to a couple of simple camp precautions will drastically cut down on the chances of that happening. When we step into the woods, however, we almost immediately violate the rules of safety simply by the nature of what we are doing. Most bear precautions for hiking revolve around not surprising a bear – make lots of noise, hike with the wind at your back, etc. But as hunters, we are trying to do just the opposite. We do our best to stay quiet, and to make sure that nothing in front of us smells us or sees us coming. Then, we also throw in some cow and calf elk sounds – sounds that are meant to imitate one of the bear’s primary food sources. However, despite putting ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation, there are still a few things hunters can do to reduce the chances of an unwanted encounter with a grizzly bear while hunting:
For a grizzly bear that is preparing for a long winter hibernation, protein and fat are key components to their diet. And with a sense of smell that is around 2000-times stronger than that of a human, a bear can smell fresh meat from several miles away. Once they get a whiff of a fresh food source, it doesn’t take them long to arrive on the scene. And just like the previous 2 areas where a grizzly bear encounter is a possibility, there are some things to consider to avoid a confrontation with a hungry bear once you’ve killed an elk.
Again, hunting elk in grizzly bear country does come with some risks. However, with a little planning and extra effort while in the field, you can greatly decrease the odds of an encounter with a bear. Most bear attacks are due to surprising an unsuspecting bear – especially a female bear with cubs. Keep a clean camp, keep your head on a swivel while you are hunting, and work quickly to get the meat off the carcass and moved to a safe location a good distance away, and the odds will be in your favor.
One more consideration I didn’t mention previously is the possibility of unknowingly stumbling into someone else’s elk carcass while you are out hiking. If the carcass has been there longer than 24 hours, there’s a good chance a grizzly bear could be on it. There isn’t a whole lot you can do to avoid this, but if your hunting partner happens to kill an elk, hunt somewhere else for the rest of your hunt. Additionally, I prefer to hunt earlier in the season if I’m going to hunt in grizzly country. The earlier in the season I hunt, the fewer carcasses there will be scattered around the area, and the lower my chances of running into a bear on someone else’s carcass. Lastly, don’t put a trail camera on an elk carcass to capture video or pictures of grizzlies, and then wait until dusk on the last day of the hunt to retrieve it. Just trust me on that one…