Even in a year filled with edgy bear encounters across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Dale Fetz’s story stands out.
In the wee hours Friday, a bear, probably a grizzly, was so close to her tent she said Monday that, “I could feel its heartbeat.”
Fetz reached out to Cowboy State Daily after reading about other grizzly and black bear encounters around the region.
She’s certain that the only reaction that she could think of at the time – to just stay dead quiet and stock still – is probably what saved her.
That, and the fact that her husky/German shepherd mix Dakota slept through the entire encounter.
Bear expert Chuck Neal of Cody, a retired federal ecologist, agreed that it’s a good thing the pooch kept snoozing.
“Had the dog woken up and started barking, that would have been a wild card,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “It could have gone a few different ways then.”
Seeking A Little Privacy
Fetz is an experienced tent camper who lives in Choteau, Montana. That’s one of the communities that has recently seen an uptick in grizzly activity as the bears continue to reclaim some of their natural prairie habitat.
She also previously lived in Wyoming, including in Park County, which has a robust population of bears. And she frequently visits Glacier National Park, which is prime grizzly habitat.
During her most recent camping trip in the park’s Saint Mary’s campground, she took all of the usual precautions.
“I don’t leave food in my tent. It’s all wrapped up or in something hard-sided quite a way away,” she said.
She deliberately picked a spot on one of the farthest edges of the campground next to some bushes. She realized brush might conceal or draw in a bear, but she figured it was a trade-off in favor of peace and privacy.
“I had put my tent near the bushes because the people around me had been turning on their generators, and that irritates me. I go out there for the silence,” Fetz said.
Fetz said she “felt some rustling” that stirred her awake at about 2:30 a.m.
“I thought it was Dakota, but she hadn’t moved,” she said.
Then it sank in. There was a bear close by — extremely close by.
“The bear had actually stopped right next to the tent. So, it was maybe three feet away from me,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “It was rooting and grunting. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ My bear spray was not in my tent with me, and I would not have wanted to use bear spray anyway because I was in an enclosed tent.”
Fetz couldn’t determine for sure what species the bear was, but given its sheer apparent size, she thinks it was a grizzly.
“I laid there and I was just silently praying. I was calling on Jesus,” she said. “And it just kept rooting around. It was there for maybe a minute.”
But that minute felt like forever to Fetz.
“I was assuming it could smell me. I’m assuming it could smell my dog. I didn’t move a muscle,” she said.
After the bear moved off, she continued to stay stock still.
“There was no way I was going back to sleep after that,” Fetz said.
'A Big Pile Of …'
Once daylight came, Fetz ventured outside. She went to visit her nearest neighbor, a young woman who was camping in a sprinter van.
“I was trying to think of what to tell her when she walked right up to me and said, ‘Look at this.’ It was a big pile of … well, the ranger came by later and said, ‘That’s bear skat,’” Fetz said.
The women were able to trace the bear’s movements based upon the pile and disturbed grass.
“He came walking along, he did his poop thing over by her van, then he ambled along and lingered right next my tent and churned up some dirt,” Fetz said.
“I’m just wondering what his bear thoughts were,” she added.
Did The Right Thing
Neal, who has spent countless hours in bear country, said he thinks Fetz did the right thing by staying absolutely quiet and utterly still.
He also said it’s a huge stroke of luck that Dakota didn’t wake up.
“If the dog had burst from the tent and started barking, it might have pushed a black bear away,” he said. “But if it was a grizzly, the bear might have gone after the dog, the dog might have run back into the tent, and the bear would have followed the bear into the tent.”
Neal said the only thing he would had done differently would have been to keep bear spray handy inside the tent. He agreed that spraying it inside the tent would have been horrible. But had the situation moved outside the tent, it would have been good to have the spray right at hand.
But he cautioned against “partially used” cans of bear spray.
“You want to keep your bear spray in your tent, but not a partially used can. Only a new can. The residue of spray on a can that’s already been used will produce an odor that can actually attract bears,” he said.
Done With Bears For A While
Neal added that it’s not surprising that more grizzlies have been showing up on the fringes of Choteau.
“The Teton River there is a travel corridor for grizzlies” as they continue to push eastward into the Montana prairie country,” he said.
For her part, Fetz said she’s heard some of friends and neighbors talk about seeing grizzlies near town, but she’s not interested in catching a glimpse of one.
“I think my heart’s had enough of bears for now,” she said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.