Except for the half-moon scars on the side of Mark Matheny’s face, you would never guess that he had survived a grizzly bear attack. The puncture wounds to his chest and arms are hidden under his shirt; only when he presses your finger down onto a soft spot on his head, where the bear’s canine tooth cracked his skull, do you realize how close he came to losing his life.
Matheny’s experience is the nightmare many hunters risk when aspens turn to gold in the stronghold of our most powerful and unpredictable predator. Sows with cubs are most likely to attack, but bears startled at close range, encountered during mating season, or guarding kills may also react aggressively. Matheny had three of those four strikes against him: Not only did he unknowingly approach within a bear’s personal space (55 yards, although bears have charged from greater distances) while bowhunting in Montana, but it was a sow with cubs, lying up next to a kill.
The stealthy nature of bowhunting, and its coming at a season when bears range widely in search of food, places hunters at high risk. Using cow squealers and bugles compounds the danger, for calls attract bears as well as elk. Short of avoiding grizzly habitat altogether (a policy many bowhunters strictly adhere to), you can minimize chances of a confrontation by avoiding places where bears feed in early autumn—berry patches, whitebark pine stands, mountainsides rich with army cutworm moths—and by always hunting with a partner. Use a flashlight when walking to hunting areas before dawn, and never investigate a carcass.
Grizzlies tend to hole up in dense patches of cover during the October and November rifle seasons. Bear biologist James Jonkel likens these secluded sanctuaries to dark alleys in a city. In favored areas such as spruce thickets near boggy meadows, an abundance of scat and tracks, eroded trails, day beds, digging sites, overturned rocks, and claw marks on trees remind a hunter that he is in a tenderloin district where he has no business being. Local landowners will often be aware of such bear haunts; heed their warnings.
In 1995, five of the 17 grizzlies that had to be destroyed in the elk country near Yellowstone Park had been attracted to hunters’ carcasses. When you make a kill, separate the meat from the gut pile and either use a sheet of plastic to drag the gut pile away or move the quarters at least 200 yards away. Hang the meat as high as possible. If you must leave a carcass on the ground, leave it in an open area you can see from a vantage. Fix a handkerchief or T-shirt saturated with human scent nearby. When you return, approach from upwind and make lots of noise.
According to Jonkel, it’s usually safe to leave meat out for one night, but that’s it. As he puts it, “Bears cache their meat; mountain lions cache their meat; we have to, too.”
And if trouble comes despite your best efforts at avoiding it? Prepare by rehearsing the responses that might save your life, and the bear’s.
When to Take Flight or Play Dead
If you spot a grizzly at a distance, keep out of sight and leave, walking downwind if possible. If the bear has seen you, move away upwind so that your scent drifts toward it. In an encounter, back away slowly, talking in a quiet voice. If the grizz follows, drop an item from your pockets or pack ( not food!) to deflect its attention, but keep your pack on for protection. Do not crouch down or make eye contact, which the bear may interpret as aggressive behavior.
If the bear charges, stand your ground. Many grizzlies bluff-charge, veering away at the last instant. An attacking grizzly can cover 40 feet in less than a second, so only climb a tree if you have the time. Most grizzlies do not climb, although blood found 20 feet up a pine tree that a protective sow shinnied to kill a photographer inn Glacier Park is a sobering reminder of exceptions to the rule.
If the bear presses an attack and you do not have a weapon, lie on your stomach, place your hands behind your head and neck, and play dead. If the bear rolls you over, keep rolling until you are facedown again. Most grizzlies will stop attacking once they feel the threat is gone. Wait several minutes after the bear has departed before leaving.
How to Fight Back Against a Bear
The decision to use a firearm against a charging bear carries a grave risk, for seldom will you have time for more than a snap shot, and grizzlies are very hard to kill at close range. A wounded bear that may only have been bluff-charging is likely to carry through with the attack. If you must fire in self-defense, aim for the chest, neck, or shoulders. A word of warning for anyone prepared to take this step: You’ll have to prove to wildlife officers that the bear meant business, so you might want to wait until you have some tooth marks to show.
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A better choice is aerosol pepper spray. Carried by park rangers in grizzly country, it has deterred many charging bears. Mark Matheny might not have survived had not his hunting partner emptied the contents of a pepper-spray canister into the face of the bear that was mauling him. Matheny now markets his own brand, but he is quick to point out that pepper spray should not be considered an alternative to caution.