Montana Hunters and grizzlies all walked away relatively unscathed after two recent run-ins in prairie country that was, until recently, absent of the bears.
After one incident in which a bird hunter fired his shotgun at a grizzly, a Montana wildlife official told Cowboy State Daily that he found a shotgun wad with some grizzly hair in it, but no blood.
Wildlife agents later used drones and a helicopter to search for the bear “about 4miles in each direction,” but found nothing, said Chad White, a bear management specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That means the bear probably wasn’t seriously hurt.
In another incident, a grizzly tried to claim the carcass of a whitetail buck than an archery hunter had just killed. The bear ran away when the hunter and an FWP agent drove up to the scene in the agent’s pickup. That gave them enough time to toss the deer carcass into the truck’s bed and leave.
Incidents At Freezout
The incidents apparently involved different bears, and both happened earlier this month in the vicinity of the Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area. It’s between the small towns of Choteau and Fairfield, Montana, about 40 miles west of Great Falls.
Freezout is known primarily for its world-class waterfowl hunting, but also hosts excellent upland bird and whitetail populations.
It’s one area of Montana’s prairie country that grizzlies, a native Great Plains species, have started to reclaim.
‘Just So You Know, There’s A Bear Here’
Brent Lonner, an FWP area wildlife biologist, told Cowboy State Daily that a text message he got on the afternoon of Sept. 10 prompted him to go check on some of the agency’s horses corralled near the wildlife management area.
Somebody texted me, ‘Hey, there’s a grizzly right next to Freezout Lake.’ It’s not routine, but in recent years we have gotten calls about grizzlies in that area,” he said.
“I went to check on the horses, and they were fine. But I saw the bear wandering along a fence line there, so I thought I’d do a perimeter sweep,” he said.
It looked to be a young grizzly, maybe in the 200-pound range, he said.
Lonner said he spotted a vehicle belonging to some hunters he knew, so he called them. They told him they had also seen the bear and were staying clear of it.
But they also saw another hunter in the area that apparently wasn’t aware of the grizzly.
Lonner soon found both the other hunter and the grizzly through his spotting scope. And when he saw the hunter walking back to his vehicle, Lonner intercepted him.
“I told him, ‘Just so you know, there’s a bear here,’” Lonner said, adding, “That’s when he told me he had a deer down.”
‘It Could Have Been A Bad Deal’
The hunter said that after dropping a whitetail buck, he was headed to his vehicle to fetch water and mosquito repellant before walking back out to start processing and packing the deer’s carcass.
Instead, Lonner called the owner of the land the hunter had walked into with permission. He asked for permission to drive onto the property. The landowner agreed, and Lonner drove the hunter back to the deer carcass in his pickup.
As they approached, they could see the bear starting to gnaw on the carcass, but at the sight of the pickup, it “ran off about 100 yards away into some tall grass,” he said.
That allowed the men enough time to toss the carcass into the back of Lonner’s pickup and leave without incident. He added that the bear had managed to eat only a little bit of the carcass, but none of the choice cuts of meat.
Lonner is glad he intercepted the hunter when he did, because it was starting to get dark by the time they got back to the deer carcass. So had the hunter gone back alone, and was unaware of the grizzly, things could have ended much differently.
“It could have been bad deal, coming in on a bear on a deer carcass like that – straight in and in the dark,” he said.
Recommends Bear Spray
In the second incident in the Freezout area, an upland bird hunter on Sept. 12 encountered a grizzly about 15 feet away in a thicket and shot at it with a 20-gauge shotgun, loaded with #7 birdshot, managing to drive the bear off, White said.
White said that in his estimation, it was legitimate self-defense because the shotgun “was all the hunter had in his hands at the time.”
The extensive search of the area after the incident turned up only the spent shotgun wad with grizzly hair in it, he said. Wads are the material, usually plastic, that hold a charge of shot securely inside a shotgun shell and fly out the end of the muzzle when the weapon is fired. At close ranges, they can strike a target.
Birdshot isn’t a good bear defense round. And White said he highly recommends bear spray anyway.
In many cases, even with larger-caliber handguns or rifles — or shotguns loaded with buckshot or slugs — a bear can end up running off wounded, he said. And searching for a wounded grizzly is a dangerous task that wildlife agents are loathe to take on.
Carrying bear spray has become standard routine for hunters, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts in places such as northwest Wyoming or Montana’s mountain wilderness areas.
‘No Different Than A Home Invasion’
Now, bird hunters on the prairies should start carrying bear defense and practicing the same “bear aware” techniques that mountain hunters in Wyoming and Montana have gotten used to, White said.
“I tell people that upland bird hunting along the mountain front is the most dangerous thing you can do in bear country,” he said.
That’s because grizzlies, like birds, will hunker down in the scattered bits of cover on the prairies. And hunters who are used to just barging into those thickets in hopes of flushing birds could be in for a nasty surprise, as grizzlies continue to push eastward onto Montana’s plains.
“You’re walking right into a bear’s bedding area,” he said. “From the bear’s standpoint, that’s no different than a home invasion.”
White said he’s been telling bird hunters be cautious, and noisy, when approaching thickets in the Freezout area.
“When it’s possible, drive up next to the thickets and honk your horn before you start hunting,” he said. “That shouldn’t flush the birds. If you’re walking in, yell, ‘Hey Bear! Hey Bear!’ or whatever you want to yell. Just them know that you’re there.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.