By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter
The thought of blood from a grizzly attack spilling on the snow during the depths of winter might not be on the minds of most Wyomingites, but it perhaps it should be, some wildlife biologists say.
Bear activity during the winter across the West is rare, but not unheard of, grizzly biologists in Wyoming and Montana told Cowboy State Daily.
There have also been winter grizzly encounters reported as far north as the Yukon and Alaska, including at least one fatal mauling.
The good news is, grizzlies in particular tend to den up for the winter in high, steep areas, which might not be good places to venture anyway, said Dan Thompson, large carnivore specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Let Sleeping Bears Lie
Apparently, the bruins don’t want their winter slumber to be interrupted by annoying bipeds who for some odd reason enjoy frolicking in the snow.
Thompson said that “grizzlies especially tend to be in higher altitudes and away from any human activities” when denning for the winter.
That was echoed by Jennifer Fortin-Noreus, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grizzly bear biologist with the University of Montana’s grizzly bear recovery program.
“Remember that most bears den at very high elevation on steep slopes, so the likelihood of encounter is rare, but they have been seen by back country skiers, snowmobilers, etc.,” she said.
Scary Encounter In Alaska, Tragedy In Yukon
With winter temperatures and snow here to stay, many might simply assume that grizzlies, and black bears, are denned up until spring. But a recent encounter near Fairbanks, Alaska, and a fatal 2018 mauling in Canada serve as reminders that there are exceptions to that rule.
Alaska resident Barrett Flynn recently told authorities that he and other members of a backcountry cross-country skiing party recently ran into a grizzly north of Fairbanks.
They reported that the bear looked “thin” and wasn’t aggressive. But Flynn noted that the encounter rattled him enough to make him consider carrying bear spray during winter outings.
Things didn’t end so well for a woman and child in Canada’s Yukon region during winter 2018.
Valérie Théorêt, 37, and her infant daughter Adèle Roesholt were killed in a November mauling. Authorities later surmised that a male grizzly had attacked them because it was starving.
‘Bear Aware’ Year-Round
In light of those and other incidents, people should never completely let down their “bear aware” guard, Fortin-Noreus said.
She said that though bear encounters during the winter remain rare, “we have had reports of grizzly bears being out all months of the year.”
Thompson agreed that putting away bear spray, as well as healthy situational awareness, just because it’s winter might not be the best idea.
“We have dealt with or had reports of bears in every month of the year, but these are an anomaly,” Thompson said. “I think people always need to be ‘aware of their surroundings’ in the outdoors regardless of bears. The potential of encountering a bear (in winter) is very minimal … (but) never say never.”