LANDER - Encounters between grizzly bears and hunters often mean dead bears, but it doesn't have to be that way, according to a research biologist's new study.
After studying 68 cases gleaned from 1992 to 2004, Chuck Schwartz found that 19 percent of the grizzly bear deaths were due to out-of-season vandals, 4 percent in defense of property, 59 percent in self-defense and 18 percent as mistaken identity, where grizzlies were mistaken for black bears in spring hunts.
"You have to remember that about half of all grizzly bear deaths are management removals," said Schwartz, in a telephone interview from his Missoula, Mont., office.
Schwartz, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said the grizzly deaths he studied were all reported by the public. They came in a mix of reports obtained from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The wildlife agencies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana all have programs to help hunters so they can better distinguish black bears from grizzly bears. All have severe penalties for the wanton poaching of grizzly bears, which are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act. Schwartz focused his analysis on encounters between hunters and grizzly bears during fall elk-hunting seasons.
Of those 39 cases, six grizzlies were killed in a hunting camp, nine were killed in conflicts over elk carcasses, and 24 were killed when hunters and bears surprised each other in the field and the bears charged.
Schwartz said that when a grizzly bear comes to a hunting camp, it means the animal has been habituated to the fact that hunting camps mean food.
"Generally, we're finding that food storage compliance is good," Schwartz said. "But we've also learned that people tend to get sloppy as they're breaking camp and getting ready to leave."
That's when hunters in an otherwise tidy camp try to burn food scraps in the campfire, dump excess horse feed rather than pack it out, or toss carcass trimmings into the woods, he said.
"Bears learn these things," Schwartz said.
He once followed grizzly bear tracks from camp to camp, as the bear systematically checked each camp's cook area, fire pit and picket line for horses.
Even the cleanest, tightest-run hunting camp can be invaded by a hungry bear, because that bear learned to associate food with camps from a sloppy camp - miles away or years in the past.
Bear spray is an effective deterrent to bears hanging around or entering camp, he said.
Over a carcass
"When a hunter kills an elk, you need to start your stopwatch. The longer you wait, the more likely a bear will show up," Schwartz said.
The common thread with grizzlies getting killed over or near elk carcasses, Schwartz said, is that the meat was left there overnight or for a day or more. Most significantly, he said, there have been no incidents reported when a bear came into a carcass that was dealt with immediately by the hunter.
The best scenario is to work the carcass right away, quarter the meat and get out of the area, away from the blood and guts that attract bears, he said.
"The idea is to break the scent trail between where you killed the elk and your hunting camp," he said.
Meat has much less odor than blood and guts, he said. If you can get your elk meat quartered and hung in a tree, the bear will be more than content to eat the hide, guts and discarded fat left behind, he added.
If a hunter must leave a carcass overnight, or even for a few hours, he should understand that a grizzly bear might have already claimed that kill by the time the hunter returns.
"Be prepared and be smart," Schwartz said. Follow the rules of the road in bear country: Be noisy, bring lots of help (there's safety in numbers), and bring the bear spray in hand, ready to use.
"Bear spray is a very good deterrent," Schwartz said.
Research by Stephen Herrerro of the University of Calgary showed that pepper spray is 96 percent effective in deterring grizzly bears.
Grizzlies are hungry in the fall, putting on fat for hibernation. A grizzly charge over or near an elk carcass is what Schwartz called a dominance charge, intended to scare - not kill - challengers and competitors.
"Bears avoid hunters and hikers all the time," he said. They'll avoid you, if you given them a chance to do so.
The problem is that hunters have guns in their hands, not pepper spray, he said. A quiet hunter can surprise a bear, and the resultant charge gives hunters scant seconds to switch from gun to pepper spray canister.
"Time and again, hunters said it happened so fast that when they shot, the bear fell right at their feet," Schwartz said.
The number of charges in the field was 24, of which 14 were adult females with cubs.
"Females are very protective of their young," Schwartz said.
The key message is "get out of Dodge" if you see a female with a cub any time in the fall during hunting season, he said.
Some of the other situations studied by Schwartz included bears that had been flushed out of the timber, running straight into second groups of hunters.
The key issue with surprise encounters in the field is that hunters are acting like hunters, moving quietly through the woods. That's the exact opposite of what hikers and campers are urged to do in grizzly country n make noise while you're moving around so you don't surprise a grizzly bear.
One issue that has emerged from grizzly/hunter encounters is that while many hunters carry bear spray, they're not fully prepared to use it. Many times, they've never even used it in practice. All that adds up to a twinge or more of doubt when faced by a charging grizzly, so that guns are used instead.
The Sierra Club of Montana would like to change that mental equation in favor of pepper spray and the lives of grizzly bears. Conservation organizer Monica Fella said the Sierra Club bought enough inert canisters (not loaded with capsicum) to allow 1,000 Montanans to practice using the spray during hunter education classes offered last year by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
"We'd like to expand this program to Idaho, Wyoming and up around Glacier National Park," Fella said, "but it is pretty expensive. We think this hands-on experience increases the odds that hunters will reach for the bear spray and not the gun."
Mark Bruscino, a grizzly bear biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said he uses inert canisters in demonstrations for hunters, and agreed that practice with the inert canisters could be useful.
Brodie Farquhar is a freelance writer based in Lander. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.