Being “Bear Aware” in Big Sky Country
A few days after the opening of Montana’s 2022 pheasant season, a 51-year-old bird hunter from Washington State was charged and trampled by an adult male grizzly bear, weighing just shy of 700 pounds, after being cornered in a creek drainage east of Choteau.
Thankfully, the hunter sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
The bear, however, was not so lucky. Birdshot and handgun wounds forced Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MT FWP) bear management specialists, game wardens, and Teton County deputies – with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approval – to locate and euthanize the wounded bear in a region with high farm and outdoor recreationist density.
“This is the third instance of bird hunters and grizzly bear interactions this fall,” said Wesley Sarmento, MT FWP bear management specialist for north-central Montana and an avid bird hunter himself. “As the bear range continues to expand, educating bird hunters about the crossover between pheasant cover and grizzly bear habitat, along with the best strategies for avoiding conflict, is important.
I asked Sarmento to help define the current grizzly bear range and based on current knowledge, where hunters need to remain ‘bear aware’ in the pheasant range. “If you draw a north-south line from Big Sandy to Lewistown, anywhere west has the potential to see grizzly bear encounters on the prairie,” he said. “Typical season ranges for encounters are from the opening of bird season to around early December when the bears prepare for hibernation.
Habitat for Pheasants and Grizzlies
Montana pheasant hunters are keenly aware that thick patches of brush, thickets along creek drainages and canals, wild rose patches, tallgrass prairie, and cattails hold the majority of Big Sky roosters. Coincidentally, these same habitat types are inviting for feeding and day-bedded grizzlies.
Shelterbelts can also be attractive for both species, as Sarmento verified. “One of the incidental contacts between bird hunters and grizzlies this year was at Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area, a popular pheasant hunting destination. A bear was day-bedded in a shelterbelt, but luckily, an unoccupied side of the trees allowed the bear to exit swiftly and safely.”
Source: Montana Fish,Wildlife & Parks
Avoiding Bear/Bird Hunter Conflicts
“Most folks who hunt pheasants in Montana are simply not in a ‘grizzly mode,’ as I like to call it,” said James Jonkel, grizzly bear manager for MT FWP. “That’s the number one piece of advice – always carry that simple mindset on your hunts to greatly minimize potential interactions with a bear.” Other tips provided by MT FWP staff include:
- Don’t hug the brush when pursuing birds in grizzly country
- Be actively looking for bear sign – scat, tracks, and diggings
- Allow escape routes for bears to exit if encountered
- If a bear is spotted, back out of area slowly and gain control of dogs
- Carrying bear spray is a must
- Make noise in a moderate tone (don’t yell), and use bells on bird dogs to alert bears ahead of time
- Hunt in a direction that allows bears to be downwind of your location
- Visit with private landowners about any bear sightings in your hunt area
The Best Bear Deterrent?
So, here’s the big question – what’s the best deterrent for bear encounters? Well, number one is educating yourself on the avoidance strategies previously mentioned and always have the mindset of “bear aware” in the field. When “too close for comfort” situations do arise, proper use of bear spray has been proven time and time again to be the best method for fending off threatening or attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and the animal involved, which is the goal.
“It’s second nature for hunters, especially bird hunters, to point and shoot in close quarters with a grizzly bear,” said Jonkel. “But these types of scenarios can go from bad to worse in a hurry with a wounded animal. Carry bear spray and know how to use it if needed.”
Jonkel also discussed the grim outcomes for individual animals when shotshells are discharged at a grizzly bear. Simply put, it’s a sad situation. “Bird shot basically disintegrates cartilage on the bear’s skull and it will eventually succumb to sepsis. Additionally, many of the bears are partially or fully blind from birdshot injuries and have to be euthanized – it’s a dangerous situation for our staff and the general public.”
Rooster Road Trip XIII – Montana Mixed Bags
This year’s Rooster Road Trip finds the crew in bear country during Episode Two. New content is released every Wednesday through the Month of November, so make sure you’re caught up on all the action HERE.