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Bear Awareness During Hunting Season

by Rebecca Ramsey
| November 30, 2022 12:00 AM

Grizzly and black bears are found throughout our region, and this is the time of year that bears are in hyperphagia, the time when bears increase their feeding activity before heading to their dens for winter. Once they enter their dens, bears go without food and water for months. If they do not get enough to eat in the fall, the sows don't produce cubs and some bears may even die of starvation.

It is hunting season here in Montana, and with this, comes a set of bear-safe practices all of its own. Hunting is not only a form of recreation and a way to connect to nature, but just like the other predators on the landscape, this is a time for humans to potentially harvest enough meat to survive though the year. Typically, when recreating in bear country, it is recommended that you are aware of your surroundings and make bears aware of your presence by making noise, wearing bells, singing on the trail, and hiking in groups. Most attacks happen when bears (and humans) are surprised. When pursuing your quarry on the hunt, however, many of these bear-safe practices are exactly what you refrain from doing.

When hunting alone, make sure someone knows your detailed plans, and have a way to check in with your person. If you are hunting with a partner, do the same. Make sure you know one another’s plans and have regular check in times.

While hunting in bear country, pay close attention to your surroundings. Learn about bear habits and habitats. Grizzly bears often use tall, dense shrub fields for areas to sleep during the day, so hunters should consider avoiding these habitats. Look for sign – not just for the game you are hunting – but also for bears. This includes looking for bear tracks, scat, and evidence of activity such as turned over rocks, excavated tree stumps, and flocks of scavenging birds that may indicate a fresh kill. Keep in mind that you may attract a bear unintentionally while bugling for elk, or using other game calls.

When bears become aware of human presence, they usually leave the area. However, it is important to practice encounter scenarios in your head, and to practice using bear spray. While you will be carrying a weapon with you while hunting, keeping bear spray within reach is important, as spray has proven to be a real deterrent to an attack, keeping both humans and bears alive. If you happen to encounter a bear, keep the bear in your sight. Talk to it firmly and calmly while backing away slowly when the bear is not actively watching you and leave the area.

Finally, if you have had a successful hunt, attend to your dead animal and remove it from the area you killed it as quickly as possible. The longer a carcass remains on the ground, in the back of a truck, or hanging in hunting camp, the more likely it will be discovered by a curious bear. The sooner you can get your carcass into a safe, locked building and butchered, the better. Some grizzlies have been conditioned to gut piles and as such, will move toward the sound of gunshots. When cleaning your animal for transport, be especially aware of your surroundings.

Should you have to leave a carcass for a period of time, you should take special precautions such as bringing a tarp with you. You can put the guts on the tarp to drag away from the carcass and then use that tarp to cover the carcass to deter scavenging birds. Carefully choose an observation point where you can clearly see the carcass upon return, and take the time to look for bears or other scavengers before attempting retrieval. Should you encounter a bear while retrieving your quarry, take care of your safety first, relinquishing the carcass if necessary.

You can learn more about how to stay safe while hunting in bear country, more about bear habits and habitats, and about best practices for storing food (and game) by visiting fwp.mt.gov, and learn more about keeping your property safe by visiting Swan Valley Bear Resources at www.swanvalleyconnections.org/swan-valley-bear-resources.