By Jim Stanford on November 1, 2011
Sunday’s bear attack on a hunter is likely to cool enthusiasm for those stalking elk in Grand Teton National Park.
Or, at least, for those hunting the Snake River bottom, one of the few backcountry areas open in the park. Aside from the Snake and Blacktail Butte, hunt area 75 is mostly a haven for those preferring to chase ungulates from the comfort of their trucks along the Gros Ventre and Antelope Flats roads.
Hunter Tim Hix, 32, bitten twice by a griz upon surprising it upstream of Blacktail Ponds, is said to be OK. But as the amount of terrain not occupied by grizzly bears each fall continues to shrink, fellow hunters are uneasy. And the latest run-in adds ammunition to the effort by photographer Tom Mangelsen and friends to end the park hunt altogether.
Already hunters are feeling squeezed, as the crowded scene atop Crystal Butte, above the National Elk Refuge, attests. Many of my friends are unwilling to hunt up north anymore because of the threat of grizzlies. And even Crystal is no sanctuary: A hunter reportedly spotted a large grizzly up there earlier this fall.
The park has closed a quarter-mile area around the spot where Hix was attacked, as the griz had buried an elk carcass there. Still, other parts of hunt area 75 could be just as dangerous. Grizzly No. 399 has been spotted along the river with her cubs this fall, just as she was in 2007-08.
In griz country, hunters don’t stand much of a chance. Tiptoeing through the forest, often before first light, is probably the best way to stumble upon a bruin. Alert the bears, and you’ll scare off elk.
It’s clear bears are becoming habituated to hunters leaving behind gut piles. Last fall, a friend shot an elk in the Gros Ventres, and within minutes a black bear was upon the scene, drawn by the sound of gunfire. For a while this friend and his partner made every attempt to ward off the bruin: firing warning shots, hitting it with a thrown stick, sending a blast of pepper spray past its face. But the bear stood its ground, waiting patiently for a meal. Eventually, they dragged the elk a short distance away and quartered it.
Two years ago I hunted the park, often in the same vicinity where Hix walked upon a bear Sunday. I was under the impression my knowledge of the Snake would give me an advantage. I was wrong. There were never any elk on the east side of the river, the only bank where hunting is permitted. I’d hear them sometimes in the dark, chirping and squealing. But the herd was always on the move; by first light they’d cross to safety on the west side of the river.
No, the park hunt seems to reward those roadside hunters, who essentially wait for the elk to be caught at dawn in the flats where they can machine-gun them. It’s not my idea of a hunt, but to each his own.
The only time I saw elk in the river bottom that season was when they had been chased down there by hunters from the highway. And for some of those hunters, following up your shot meant driving as far as Schwabacher’s Landing. One morning, I walked for an hour or more on a trail of blood drops, after the hunter who shot the elk stayed in the parking lot; fortunately, another hunter finished off the animal when it ventured onto a bench above the river.
(Of course, there were other rewards to hunting in the park: the majesty of the peaks, exploring the river bottom, discovering old channels, beaver haunts, wolf tracks and other secrets hidden from the water.)
Mangelsen, the world-renowned wildlife shooter, and his friends are onto something. The park hunt, euphemistically known as an “elk reduction program,” is just that: reducing elk, often trophy bulls who have grown accustomed to park protection. More and more, it doesn’t serve those hunters who wish to give fair chase in the woods.
The first time I strapped on a pack, rifle slung across my shoulder, knife and bear spray on my belt, and stepped out into fresh snow beneath starlight was a thrill. Certainly competing for elk with and amongst bears is part of the game. But the game just got more intimidating.