Encounters with grizzly bears dangerous but uncommon

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D.S. Pledger
Saturday, April 26, 2014

An online outdoor journal I read recently has some good information on grizzly bears.

In order to avoid them, a few of the things the writer recommends are to travel with a group whenever possible, talk loudly, sing and tie a bell to your pack. Avoid thick brush and walk with the wind at your back.

Above all, don't surprise them, since bears don't like surprises.

In other words, do exactly the opposite of what you do when you're hunting elk.

This is a bit disquieting since, as mentioned in a column a while back, that's exactly what I'll be doing this fall—sneaking around the mountains looking for an elk in prime grizzly country.

A few more bits of information the journal offered for hunters headed for bear country in case they do encounter a charging bear: You can pretty much forget about saving your bacon with a handgun, and unless your rifle is a .300 Winchester Magnum or bigger, you probably won't stop a bear with it either. You'll only have time for one or two shots at most and you'll be trying to hit a small vital spot on a rapidly moving target. Considering that a badly perturbed grizz can cover 44 feet in a single second, you may not even get a firearm aimed or the bear spray out of its holster.

But are the big bears that much of a menace? On our last trip to Montana I had a chance to talk to a guide about his experiences with grizzlies.

“I was hunting mule deer” he recounted. “I'd worked my way up the side of a mountain and had just come up to the edge of a small saddle. When I got my head and shoulders over it, I was looking into the eyes of a grizzly only a few yards away. I slid back down and waited with my rifle ready in case it charged. When it didn't, I backed away from the spot and kept moving until I was sure it wasn't following me.”

An interesting sidelight: The guide unloaded his gun while climbing over some blow-downs earlier, and had forgotten to rechamber a round.

One takeaway from his story is that bumping into a bruin isn't really that common. Our guide was an outdoorsman who grew up next to the mountains and has probably logged thousands of hours in the dense mountain timber, yet that was only one time that he felt that he had been in danger.

Further reading on the subject seemed to reinforce the idea of big bears boiling out of the brush hell-bent on tearing you to bits is more hype than fact.

Experts on bear behavior claim that encounters are comparatively rare, and even if you do bump into one, it does not guarantee you'll be charged. According to some studies done at Yellowstone Park, in 90 percent of encounters with radio-collared grizzly bears, the bear ran or moved off when it noticed the researcher nearby.

“The remaining 10 percent of encounters,” they noted, “resulted in one or more of the following: the bear standing, making aggressive noises and/or making a short bluff charge before turning and running or moving away from the researcher.”

Some experts believe that the best defense when in bear country is to avoid an encounter in the first place by being observant—something that should be a normal part of hunting anyway.

Amazingly, hikers who bump into a bear first noticed the presence of a 700-pound animal at an average distance of just 14 feet. A man who runs a guiding service near Yellowstone gives an example of just how tuned-out hikers can be. He writes: “Over the course of two summers I walked down several trails 100 yards and then stepped off to the side of the trail six feet, sitting in plain sight with a cooler and clipboard, not one single hiker ever noticed me.”

You can bet that I'll be keeping my eyes open. And being extra alert for bears will also up my chances of seeing an elk before it sees me.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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