Archery hunters will soon be taking to the mountains around Madison County and when they do, they’ll be in grizzly bear country.
Recent reports have detailed the poor production of a key source of food for the bears, whitebark pine tree cones. The poor crop this year means the potential for hunters and recreationists to encounter bears in the low country has increased, said Kevin Frey, bear specialist with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman.
Whitebark pine cone production has been low before, Frey said.
“This is not a rare, one-time phenomenon,” he said.
This time of year is crucial for grizzly bears as they look to put on weight prior to the winter denning. The phase is call hyperphagia and basically is when the bears are actively looking for food throughout the day.
“They have to eat a lot to get fat enough to survive the winter,” Frey said. “This time of year they’re eating a lot more hours of their activity period, so you can run into a bear any hour of the day.”
Whitebark pine nuts are a perfect food for bears in this stage because they are high in protein and fats, said Steve Primm, field director for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.
“It’s a really high quality food source that comes on exactly the right time when they need it,” Primm said.
In lieu of whitebark pine nuts, they bears will be looking for other food like roots, berries and meat.
And it’s in this setting archery hunters will hit the woods for general archery season Sept. 4.
“An archery hunter basically does everything wrong to avoid bear conflict,” Frey said.
Archery hunters are typically dressed in camouflage, they are quiet in the woods and use odor reducers that allow them to get closer to game, he said.
Hunters should carry pepper spray and be conscious of where they are hunting, Primm said.
“Practice situational awareness when they’re out in the woods and be careful,” he said. “A little situational awareness goes a long ways.”
Hunters should pay attention to bear sign, along with deer and elk sign, Frey said. This year, in particular, bears seem to be focusing on feeding on ants by tearing up logs and stumps.
If you do get an animal down, be prepared to get it out of the woods quickly or protect it by hanging it from a tree, he said.
“You need to deal with that carcass right away and get that meat away from the gut pile,” Frey said.
Blood and guts are a strong attractant for bears, particularly when they’re hungry, he said.
Another tip is if you have to leave a carcass, leave in a place you can see from a distance, so when you return you can tell if a bear is on it.
Also, when returning to a carcass, look for ravens. Ravens will often key in on carcasses being eaten by bears and will make a lot of commotion, Frey said.
If you are pushed off of an animal you’ve shot by a bear, it’s best to just let the bruin have it, he said.
In Madison County, grizzly bears are spread on the east side of the Madison Valley from the Spanish Peaks and Jack Creek all the way to Hebgen Lake, Frey said. They are also showing up more frequently in the southern Gravelly Range.
“There’s been reports through livestock grazers and recreationists this summer – a few more than normal grizzly sightings on that end of the Gravellys,” he said.
And though it’s not common, grizzly bears are occasionally seen in the Tobacco Root Mountains as well.