bears biting back forest from hunters

Reflection of the Tetons in a remnant channel of the Snake River. Photos were about all I shot in hunt area 75 during the 2009 season.

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.

Elk on the Move

Elk on the move. Barring heavy snow, scenes like this are all too rare in the fall.

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.

Critics argue the park hunt puts hunters at odds with grizzly bears and is little more than a roadside shooting gallery for trophy bulls.

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.

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Posted under Environment, Sports

6 Comments so far

  1. JB November 1, 2011 2:48 pm

    You watch, our DA will go after him for bothering the bear.

  2. jd November 2, 2011 8:18 am

    That area used to be my favorite place to fish in the fall. I could walk for miles without seeing another person. I am pro-hunting but the type of people I see in that area do a diservice to hunters in general. The only reason there is a elk “reduction” hunt in GTNP is that’s the deal the federal gov made with the state of WY to drop their opposition to creating the park. I think this hunts time has passed, I thought the wolves ate all the elk anyway.

  3. D November 2, 2011 10:55 am

    The natural equations would allow us to “bite” back correct? That would let all predators know gunfire does not equal food, it equals death (depending on the shooter). Much like wolves the populations must be managed. We can’t continue to leave humans out of the equations good and bad. The griz population has increased dramatically as far south as Big Piney and SE around to New Fork and up to the GR lakes area. I hate to call it a problem because Grizzly bears are not the problem, the management plan / lack there of is the problem.

  4. Save 100 elk, Kill a hunter November 3, 2011 7:01 am

    I’m all for bears killing humans. I’m all for humans killing bears.

    When you go hunting, you’re fair game too.

  5. joe November 3, 2011 8:04 pm

    with cwd coming, hunting will become an even more important resource tool.

  6. Chris November 13, 2011 9:05 pm

    Bear bites me, bear dies. In my home, or in GTNP.

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