Elk Hunters: Prepare For Bruins

Grizzly bears and elk inhabit the same type of country, so when you find elk, expect bears to be close.

It’s just about time for archery elk season in the Northern Rockies, and most bowhunters who venture into the backcountry of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana in September don’t have to be told to watch for grizzly bears.

Chance encounters in grizzly habitat can occur any time, but they’re most likely when hunters are field dressing a harvested animal or tracking one they have shot.

Two seasons ago in Idaho, a grizzly bear attacked a non-resident archery hunter from Michigan after he and his partner attempted to locate a bull elk they’d shot the evening before. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), the bowhunters were following the elk’s blood trail when they saw grizzly bear tracks—and the bear suddenly charged them. It bit one hunter on the shoulder and then apparently ran back to guard the elk carcass.

The hunters, who were not carrying bear spray or firearms, hiked four miles out of the backcountry and drove to the Ashton Medical Clinic, where the injured hunter was treated and released.

Two years previous, the U.S. Forest Service in Montana closed parts of the Taylor Fork drainage south of Big Sky after two bowhunters lost elk they had shot to grizzly bears after failing to recover the carcasses promptly. The hunters, from separate parties, returned to the site of their successful kills to find that grizzly bears had claimed the animals, according to a spokesperson for the Gallatin National Forest.

Such incidents happen infrequently, said Kevin Frey, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) bear management specialist.

“The elk and the bears and the hunters are all out in the same area,” Frey said. “When a carcass is on the ground, it’s definitely high odds a bear will find it within hours or at least within a day.”

With Montana’s upland game bird season opening September 1 and the bowhunting season set to open September 6, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries this week reminded hunters they will be sharing the landscape with the state’s bears that may be stalking similar prey. It might not be an encounter one hopes for, but all hunters must be aware of the potential.

The FWP suggests the following tips when hunting in grizzly country:

  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it
  • Hunt with a partner and let someone else know your plans
  • Get harvested big game out of the woods quickly
  • Upon returning to a site where harvested game is left unattended, study the site at a distance for any movement or changes, and signal your approach by making plenty of noise
  • Never attempt to frighten or haze a bear from a carcass
  • Contact FWP if a bear has consumed a carcass or covered it with debris, rendering it unsalvageable

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