40 Years of Stalking Black Bears in the Backcountry
I BEGAN HUNTING BLACK BEAR IN 1972 IN IDAHO’S CLEARWATER REGION, primarily in the Lochsa and Kelly Creek drainages. My previous experiences with hunting black bear were more related to an occasional sighting of a black bear in the fall while hunting deer or elk than specifically focusing upon bear. Hunting bear during the spring was also a new endeavor for me and created a whole new big game hunting experience at a time when it is great to be afield after a long winter.
I was introduced to spring bear hunting by a young veterinary student at Washington State University. We had met at a sportsman’s association meeting that winter and I was impressed by his enthusiasm for hunting, especially spring black bear hunting. Coupled with his enthusiasm for hunting was his knowledge of where one could find an abundance of black bears in Idaho, just a few hour’s drive from the W.S.U. campus. Thus, it did not take much for me to get hooked into a trek up the Lochsa River in search of a black bear.
Black bear season opened in Idaho on April 15th annually and the Lochsa River was easily accessible via Highway 12, which had opened a decade earlier, providing a route through the rugged Selway-Bitterroot Range to Missoula, Montana. The country was majestic, rugged and remote enough that with its high population of black bears it was not very difficult to see a lot of bears in a few days of hunting.
In those days you did not need much more than a “car camping” outfit to camp in one of the many campgrounds along the highway for the weekend. The hunting technique was just as simple. One could simply drive up and down the highway looking for bears along the river bank searching for an elk or deer carcass or in a spot where the new spring grasses were growing in open areas along the river. The most significant challenge was crossing the Lochsa River if you were unlucky enough to shoot a bear across the river.
As luck would have it, my friend shot a bear on a basalt outcropping high above the river the first day we were there. As a result, we spent the next day searching for a boat, suitable for crossing the Lochsa River at high water which we could borrow and transport up the highway to the kill site with his VW Beetle. We finally found a boat that would fit on top of the VW and were able to retrieve the bear, but I was not very excited about the “road hunting” technique and even less enamored with crossing the Lochsa at high water.
Although my first spring bear hunt did not measure up to my idea of a quality hunting experience, I was hooked on the idea of hunting spring bear. A couple weeks later I found another hunting partner who was an experienced backpack hunter who was as interested as I was in getting back into the country away from the highway and the river in search of spring bears. We were both new to black bear hunting and were eager to learn more about the habits of the bears and the habitat types were they could be found in the spring. As a result, we hunted together for nearly a decade. For me, it was the beginning of more than forty years of searching for black bears in the high country of Idaho and Montana.
During late April black bears were easy to find along Idaho’s Lochsa, Clearwater and Selway Rivers. The bears typically move to lower elevations in search of food after emerging from their dens. In addition, at that time the Clearwater, and especially the the Selway area had a preponderance of adult bears, since it was pretty much an unhunted population due to its remote, rugged mountains with almost no road access. As the snowline gradually receded up the mountain the bears followed the snowline searching for the new green shoots of grasses, forbes and a wide range of foods uncovered by the newly melting snow. By late May the bears were concentrated in the seeps, wet meadows and open areas at elevations well above the river bottoms where they had been in April. Backpacking into these areas put us right in the middle of the large elk herds that were also following the snowline to the open meadows and brush fields found at the higher elevations throughout the Clearwater Region. As we hunted these areas we encountered large “nursery herds” of cow elk with their calves and for whatever reason, we were also finding large male black bears in these same areas.
Note: Idaho’s Clearwater national forest was once home to the nation’s largest herd of elk and as a result, this was Idaho’s premier elk hunting area. Elk are a product of disturbance and they thrive where fire has disturbed a forest. The Clearwater was where in 1910 three million acres of forest burned in just two days! That fire and the fires of 1919 and 1934 created huge brush fields and open spaces where red stemmed coenophus thrived. Coenophus is a very desirable elk food, resulting in a thriving Clearwater elk herd.
At the time we seldom ever encountered any other bear hunters who were getting up into these areas in late May and early June. Most of the hunters who were looking for black bear in the spring had taken bears at much lower elevations earlier in the spring. Since we were specifically hunting for large boars, we looked over large numbers of bears each spring or moved on to turkey hunting or some other springtime pursuit. By late May to early June we usually had one bear tag left between the two of us, for we knew what the opportunity was for locating big boars in these locations.
Because bears are omnivorous and typically have access to a wide range of foods I never gave much thought to them also being opportunistic predators. In my experience up to the mid-1970’s, I had always found black bears where the spring green up was fresh or where they were feeding on winter-killed elk and deer carcasses. It did not dawn upon me at the time that there was a relationship between the bears and the elk.
In the spring of 1973, while I was hunting black bear in the Selway I met Idaho research biologist Mike Schlegel who was doing a major study into neonatal calf survival and cause-specific mortality in the area. Although elk populations were on the increase throughout Idaho at the time, concern over elk calf recruitment in the Lochsa and Cleawater areas had led to Schlegel’s study.
Since I had also began packing into these same areas in 1972 hunting elk I was particularly interested in Mike’s work. As a result, I spent considerable time over the next several years visiting with Mike about his work, his observations and his findings. This research is very interesting and could be the subject of another major article, but in short, the study results demonstrated that one major mortality factor was predation, primarily black bear with 80% of the predation occurring within a 2-week period, the 30th of May to the 14th of June. This period coincided with the timing of when the majority of the elk calves were born in the area.
I learned that the reason we were finding the elk and the bears in the same locations on the spring range was because they were there for basically the same purpose - the spring green-up. They were both following the snow line up and overlapping because of forage conditions. As opportunistic predators, the bears were finding and killing the newborn elk calves.
This and related studies demonstrated that most mortality among elk calves, regardless of cause, occurs during the first few weeks of life. This is the time when the elk calves are most vulnerable to predation by bears with bear-caused mortalities declining thereafter, presumably because the calves are less vulnerable with increasing age and mobility. Over the three years of this study and a similar study which were replicated in the area later, the results indicated black bears were killing more than half of the elk calves each year. Similar research throughout the western U.S. and Alaska has found similar results in that bears, both black and grizzly, prey upon newborn ungulates.
When you found elk calves along the trail in Idaho’s Clearwater backcountry you knew you had found an area where bears were also highly likely to be found.
In addition to understanding the dynamics of black bear predation on elk calves due to forest succession and habitat reasons, I also learned that black bear predation on elk calves during the first two weeks of June can be a learned behavior. This is especially true among mature male black bears who tend to frequent elk calving areas in search of newborn elk calves.
In addition to capturing and monitoring elk calves during this study, black bears were also trapped, monitored and relocated as part of the study. As a result, the researchers recorded sightings of black bear throughout the study, some of which I found particularly interesting for a black bear hunter. Although aerial monitoring of elk occurred during most daylight hours, more than 70% of the sightings of black bear were between 4:00 p.m. and dark. The next most frequent sightings were between daylight and 10:00 a.m.
The information I learned during my first five years of hunting spring black bears in Idaho and the data from Mike Schlegel’s studies in the Lochsa and Clearwater have not only shaped my bear hunting strategies for nearly forty years, but have contributed to many successful treks for myself and my hunting companions into the mountain ranges of Northern Idaho and most of Montana.
The information I learned during my first five years of hunting spring black bears in Idaho and the data from Mike Schlegel’s studies in the Lochsa and Clearwater enabled us to take many of Idaho’s highest ranking black bears in the Idaho records book.
I began hunting spring bears in Montana in 1980 and have continued hunting nearly every year since then, using what I learned in Idaho many years ago. Although I have hunted during various stages of the spring green-up, my most favorite treks into Montana’s bear country have been during the first two weeks of June, when the elk are calving in the high country and the big male black bears are on the prowl, looking for newborn elk calves.
The greatest density of Montana black bears is found in the Seeley-Swan region as well as throughout the Kalispell region. I have hunted that area occasionally, but my favorite areas are the Madison Range, Big Snowy Mountains, Crazy Mountains and the Snowcrest and Gravelly Ranges. Depending upon the spring green-up you can find black bears in all of these areas at lower elevations by the April 15th opener. My preference, however, is to wait until June and get into the elk calving areas back away from the road systems where you will find yourself pretty much alone with only the company of the mule deer, elk and bears, both black and grizzly these days.
While bear hunting in most areas of Western Montana you must be able to distinguish color-phase black bears from the grizzly bears who occupy the same habitat areas.
My basic rule for spring bear hunting is to be in a location where I can glass a considerable amount of country between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and dark. On occasion I will encounter hunters seeking black bears in the spring who are in camp getting supper by 6:00 p.m. or so, missing the prime time of the day to spot a black bear! I use the early morning and mid-day hours travelling either on foot or horseback to reach key glassing areas. When backpack hunting, I like to hunt through the country, looking for elk, bear habitat and especially calving areas, camping wherever darkness finds me, usually on a high basin or plateau from which bears will likely be visible. When hunting on horseback I like to use the same technique, with a light, mobile camp and the ability to camp wherever darkness finds me. The other horseback technique I like is to hunt from a campsite from which I can ride considerable distances into the backcountry during the morning and then return to camp, usually well after dark.
With either a horse or backpack gear you can work ridgelines as well as other high areas from which you can glass periodically as you move slowly along on a course which will take you to a point where you can camp or come to a trail from which you can ride or hike back to your campsite.
Using these strategies, I seldom do much spring bear hunting in the mornings, as late dinners at midnight are not conducive to getting on the trail at daylight as I would in the fall while deer or elk hunting.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Montana’s mountain ranges and related elk habitat tend to be more dry than Northern Idaho and elk are not forced into the same kinds of open areas among highly timbered areas. Thus, Montana’s elk calve in different habitat types. In some areas, Montana‘s elk calve at much lower elevations where black bears may not be as prevalent as they may be farther back in the mountains. Finding elk calving areas in Montana requires “boots on the ground” as well as knowledge of where elk will be calving in the various mountain ranges.
When you find an area where cow elk are located during the first two weeks of June you will likely have found an elk calving area. You may even find some larger nursery herds, although I have found that instead of finding as many of the large nursery herds as I did in Idaho, Montana’s backcountry elk can be much more disbursed when they calve. Although I do not know this is a fact, but wolves on the landscape may have something to do with this observation.
Once you find areas where elk calve you should make special note of these areas, for you will be able to return year after year. When you do find an elk calving area, the bears will be there, both black and grizzly. As a responsible black bear hunter you must know how to identify a black bear vs a grizzly bear as you will encounter grizzlies in most of Montana’s elk country and black bear habitats.
Bear sign is not difficult to find as bears will often use game trails and ridgelines to travel from place to place. Tracks in the mud are easily identifiable and if one is observant you can find where bear walk through fresh grass along creeks and elsewhere. Scat is also prevalent where bears are frequenting wet areas where new grasses are growing. Meadows with lush green grasses are good places to look just below the snowline. Rocky outcroppings often gather the heat of the sun and some of the earliest growth of new grasses and forbs will be found around the south-facing sides of such rock formations.
In elk calving areas where a bear has killed an elk calf you will often find the remains of the kill. When a black bear kills an elk calf, the bear will consume nearly all of the calf with the exception of the legs, skin and skull. If you find the kill site before coyotes or other scavengers disturb it will often find the skin still attached to the skull as if it has been skinned, sometimes with the legs still attached to the skin as well. On the other hand, a grizzly bear will consume the entire calf, including the legs, hooves, etc. I have never found an elk calf that was killed by wolves so I do not know what the wolves consume or leave behind. My sense is a wolf kill will be similar to that of a grizzly bear.
SPOT AND STALK
Spotting a black bear is one thing. Getting to it in time to harvest the bear before it gets too late in the day to shoot or the bear moves out of the area requires some effort. Since I like to glass from high points late in the day, I have had some interesting “races” which have left me out well after dark hiking back to my horses or my camp. In the “heat of the chase” it is easy to cover a lot of ground while focused upon the bear and getting into a position for a shot. In such situations one needs to pay attention to the landscape and key landmarks for the return journey. Modern day GPS units with track logs and track back features simplify this process. In the “old days” we hiked a lot in the dark using only our innate sense of direction and the landmarks we had noted along the way.
Black bears feeding in grassy areas will sometimes move from an area grazing along as they move and then return a short time later to feed again in the same area they left. This is fairly common in areas with a good food source, especially if you spot the bear in the late afternoon and well before dark. If you are stalking a bear and this happens, it is well worth your effort to watch the area from a good shooting position until you are pretty sure the bear has moved on. I have often “sat” on such areas until the end of shooting light and have had the bear return during the last minutes of shooting hours.
Although I hunted spring black bears in Montana before I moved to the Bitterroot Valley in 2002, spring bear hunting on Montana’s elk calving areas has become an occasion which I look forward to annually. For me, it is a great way to introduce new, young hunters to bear hunting in some of Montana’s finest wild, scenic backcountry places! Regardless of how you choose to get into the backcountry of Montana or Idaho, stalking spring bears is an opportunity for a great adventure where you will see all sorts of wildlife. If you can find and hunt an elk calving area you just may be rewarded with the black bear of a lifetime!
George A. Bettas is a hunting and conservation editor for Elk Hunter Magazine and the former Executive Director of the Boone and Crockett Club. He retired from Washington State University in 2001 as the Vice Provost for Student Affairs. He and his wife, Bobbi, live near Stevensville, MT.