How to Stay Safe in Grizzly Country

How to Stay Safe in Grizzly Country

A lot of MeatEater followers have questions about hunting in grizzly bear country. We’ve had our fair share of tense moments with grizzlies, so we understand safety is a concern for hunters with less experience. After all, grizzly bears do injure and kill people and we are all hard wired to fear predators that made a habit of eating our ancestors.

However, thousands of people hike, camp, hunt and fish in grizzly country every year without ever seeing a bear, let alone having a dangerous encounter with one. Hunters are naturally in a higher risk group, but the reality is that it’s more dangerous to drive your car than go hunting in grizzly country.

Still, some folks are so “bearanoid” they refuse to even consider hunting anywhere near grizzly territory, which is a big mistake. The places where grizzly bears live offer some of the best hunting opportunities and most beautiful landscapes on the planet.

While there’s no way to completely rule out a chance encounter with a grizzly,  there are certain common sense safety measures that will drastically lower your chances of “getting scratched up by a grizzly,” as Steve likes to say.

General Safety Tips
If you plan to hunt or fish in grizzly country, check in beforehand with the nearest fish and game office. Wildlife managers keep track of problem bears and human/bear conflicts. If necessary, they will prohibit access to certain areas if human safety is a legitimate concern.

There are plenty of well-documented safety practices for hiking in grizzly country.  They should all be committed to memory before you hit the trail.

However, hiking and hunting are two completely different activities. Unlike a hiker, the goal of a hunter is to be quiet, stealthy and to avoid spreading your scent towards animals. Walking out in plain sight with the wind at your back while talking loudly isn’t really an option unless a hunter has already filled their tag.

Regardless, in any situation where a grizzly is known or suspected to be nearby, fall back on standard precautions for avoiding conflicts with grizzlies.

Hunting In Grizzly Country
During fall hunting seasons, grizzlies are more active than any other time of year. Their only concern is to consume as many calories as possible as fast as they can. During this period of hyperphagia, bears are active all day and night.  It’s a simple fact that hunters are more likely to encounter a grizzly this time of year. 

For this reason, it is not the best idea to do a solo backcountry hunt in grizzly country. Attacks on groups are less likely than on individuals. The MeatEater film crew has safely scared off several grizzlies that wandered into camp over the years. Hunting with partners is the safest bet.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of hunters who go it alone where grizzlies are present, but those people know and accept the added risks.

Whether you’re alone or in a group, hunting in grizzly bear country demands a heightened sense of spatial awareness. I always pay a little bit more attention to my surroundings in these places. It’s not because of fear; it’s just the smart way to operate in grizzly country.

I do things in Alaska I wouldn’t do in Colorado. I look behind myself more often. I pay more attention to noises. I always give shady, shadowy areas a long, hard look. I spend more time scanning the ground for bear tracks and scat. If at all possible, I avoid pushing straight through thick, brushy areas and take the long way around where I have a clear line of sight. When I’m glassing for elk or deer, I’m also keeping an eye out for grizzlies. If you spend time hunting in close proximity to grizzly bears, you’ll start doing these kinds of things without even thinking about it.

The Risks of Evening Hunts
It’s no secret that the last hour of the day is often the most productive time to hunt big game. Regardless, there is a case to be made for heading back to camp before sunset in grizzly country.

Tracking an animal shot at last light is difficult enough without having to worry about bears. If there are grizzlies in the area, butchering and packing an animal at night adds an unavoidable element of danger. An option is to build a big fire and sleep next to your kill. That takes nerves of steel and conjures up images of our ancestors fighting off cave bears in the dark. It also isn’t the smartest idea since bears tend to be more active at night and detecting their presence isn’t possible until they are too close for comfort.

Unless you’re with a group of hunters, the safest move is to leave the area until daylight. If you’re solo or with only a single partner, gut your animal and drag the gut pile as far away as possible from the carcass (or vice versa) and return during daylight hours. The same goes for a wounded animal you didn’t manage to recover before dark. Finish the tracking job the following morning unless rain or snow threatens the blood trail. In either case, approach the area the next day with extreme caution.

Dealing with Meat
If you’re on a hunt in grizzly country and you kill an elk or deer, you should operate under the assumption that a bear is going to take notice after the butchering begins. They might not show up right away, but they’ll find the carcass sooner or later. Bears can pick up the scent of blood and meat from miles away, and many conflicts occur at or near kill sites.

This doesn’t mean you should panic. Just be cognizant of your surroundings and do what’s necessary to keep yourself out of harm’s way. If you are butchering an animal alone, your head needs to be on a swivel throughout the entire process.

Hopefully you’re with a partner so one of you can be on constant watch for bears, especially on your downwind side. The other person can work on field butchering. Take turns as necessary. Make noise and work carefully and efficiently. If you work too fast and make a mistake, you could cut yourself badly enough that a bear attack will be the least of your concerns.

After the butchering is done, get all the meat well away from the carcass. Bears tend to hit smelly gut piles first and before going after meat. Whatever meat you are unable to pack out right away should be hung in a tree at least a couple hundred yards away from the carcass. Hang the meat from a sturdy branch at least 12 feet off the ground and 6 feet from the trunk. Grizzlies aren’t great tree climbers, but if there’s meat within reach they’ll find a way to get it.

If possible, hang your meat stash in an open area you can see clearly from a long distance. Take plenty of time to watch the area around your meat tree from a distance before heading in. Ideally, it’ll be a spot where the prevailing winds carry your scent towards the spot where the meat is hanging. As you approach, yell loudly every few seconds. Get in and get out quickly every time you come back for a load of meat; don’t linger in the area. Under no circumstances should you challenge a bear that claims your kill or meat stash.

If no appropriate hanging trees are available, such as you might find on the Alaska tundra, use rock outcroppings or any other elevated spot. Cover the meat with small branches, clothing or a tarp.

If it’s necessary to store meat at camp for a night or two, use the same precautions. Hang it in a spot that’s visible from camp, but at least 100 yards away (the further the better).

The MeatEater crew has used grizzly fences on backcountry hunts.

Camping Tips
When you’re hunting, it’s tempting to choose a sheltered campsite that is hidden from view of any nearby wildlife, but in grizzly country, pick an open spot with long, clear lines of sight. Always keep a clean camp, free of trash and food. Cook your meals and wash your dishes on the downwind side of camp away from your tent. Hang all food and garbage the same way you’d store meat.

In areas with high grizzly densities where encountering bears is probable, hunters may want to take additional safety measures. Packing a portable electric bear fence allows for a sound night’s sleep and protects your campsite while you’re out hunting during the day.

You’ll hear a lot of pros and cons regarding bear spray versus handguns for personal protection. Both have their place. On some hunts we carry sidearms, but on every hunt in grizzly country we keep bear spray holstered on our hips at all times. For instance, we bring sidearms during archery season elk hunts in southwestern Montana, but we don’t during rifle season in the same area.

Bear spray has saved many lives, but you need to be trained up on carrying and deploying it safely and quickly. The drawback of bear spray is that it only works well under ideal conditions, which is a tailwind or no wind at all. A strong headwind will blow it back in your face and a stiff crossing breeze will send it off course.

From a practical standpoint, sidearms add weight and bulk to your kit. Some hunters choose not to carry them for this reason, despite the fact that handguns offer both lethal and non-lethal protection against grizzlies. The noise of a gunshot is often enough to scare off a curious bear. In the event things get ugly, sidearms give you a fighting chance if you can draw, aim and shoot quickly and accurately. Bear attacks can happen without notice so using a gun safely in that situation requires a cool head and plenty of practice.

Remember, both sidearms and bear spray are worthless in a close quarters grizzly encounter if a hunter doesn’t know how to use them properly or if they are stashed out of reach. Otherwise, both can become more of a safety hazard than an angry bear. If you’re going to keep your pistol in your backpack or you don’t know how to operate a canister of bear spray, you may as well leave them behind.

Conquering Fear
There is an important distinction to be made between fear and caution. Fear isn’t going to do you any good whether a bear shows up or not. It’s important to always stay alert, but there isn’t a grizzly hiding behind every tree.

Some hunters have a predisposed, irrational fear of being attacked by a grizzly; others develop that fear once they are out in the woods. Either way, if paranoia is ruling your decisions, hunting in grizzly country is going to be a miserable experience.

You won’t sleep and every little noise at night will have you thinking there’s a grizzly outside your tent. You’ll avoid hiking into certain spots because you saw a set of bear tracks headed in that direction. You’ll rationalize against killing an animal because you heard “bears have learned to run towards the sound of a gun shot.” Your entire hunt will be governed by fear.

On the other hand, simple caution allows you to enjoy your hunt and stay safe in places many hunters avoid. If you stay alert and exercise common sense, hunting in grizzly country is an exhilarating experience you’ll never forget. There is nothing quite like hunting where large predators still roam freely. You’ll leave with a fresh perspective on life and a new appreciation for our truly wild places.

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