Photo courtesy of Dan Lamoreux.
Black bears live almost everywhere along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. But if putting Ursus americanus in your trophy room is the goal, then not all states are created equal.
Take a look at the information below and then make some new entries on your destinations list. These four states in particular — Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado — could provide fall bruin chasers an incredible opportunity for a challenging and freezer-filling experience.
The black bear population in the Gem State is very healthy, said Brad Compton, big-game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
“Especially compared with 50 years ago, we have bears in more places and there are more of them,” he said. “They really provide a lot of opportunities all over the state.”
In fact, it would seem that these opportunities are underutilized.
The last decade or so has seen the Idaho bear population remain fairly stable for the most part. The exploitation rate is low: about a 2 percent to 5 percent harvest rate. The state would like to see these harvest levels increased in some locations.
“Where we’d really like to direct more folks is into the Lolo, Dworshak and Selway areas,” Compton said. “These regions are fairly remote and the bear population can handle lots of hunting.”
Additionally, large predators have been taking a toll on the elk populations in these areas and sportsmen would do themselves a favor by helping in management of the meat eaters.
One of the unique attributes of the Idaho experience is that sportsmen are allowed to pursue bears using a variety of techniques that are not permitted in many other places.
“Idaho is great for bear hunting,” said hunter Cory Glauner. “You can use all three styles of hunting — spot-and-stalk, bait and hounds.”
Glauner knows bears. He took his first bear with a bow at the age of 13 and has been chasing them ever since.
All three methods for hunting bears mentioned above have unique attributes and drawbacks. Preparation and planning can have a huge impact on the results of each.
“If you’re going to bait bears on your own rather than with a guide, expect to spend a season or two before you really do any good,” said Glauner, who owns Outdoors International, a sportsman’s booking agency. “It’s certainly possible to bring a bear in right away. But realistically, it takes a while to create a honeyhole. Plan on your bear bait-hunt being a long-term project.”
One of the benefits of setting baits is the potential to see multiple bears and to evaluate these animals in a controlled situation. In addition to size, the color of the animal can be observed and judged for trophy quality based upon individual taste and desires.
Color phase refers to those black bears that are not actually black. Their coat color can range from light blond to coal black and hues in between.
Hunting behind hounds, however, leaves little time for counting colors. This is not a sport for the meek at heart!
“If you are hunting with houndsmen, it can be a very physical sport,” said Glauner. “If you get on a small bear it can be a hard chase and can take you for a long way. If you get on a big bear it can run and fight, run and fight, and never tree.”
A big bear can run you for five days!
It’s possible to get an easy hound hunt and get your bear right away. But it has the potential to be the most physically demanding style of hunting there is.
“Be prepared. Especially in Idaho,” Glauner said. “I had a client once who asked, ‘Where’s the potatoes? Idaho should be named the Vertical State!’ “
The third option is spot-and-stalk hunting.
In the fall, most hunters used this method. In many cases, it’s simply because bear hunting is incidental to a hunt for elk and deer. That represents the single greatest benefit of this method for targeting bruins. In Idaho, a non-resident deer tag can be used to kill a bear. Now that’s what we call flexibility!
However, one of the negative aspects of the spot-and-stalk technique is the difficulty of appraising the size of your target. Seeing a bear next to a bait barrel or clinging to a tree above the hounds can provide a frame of reference. Sizing up a bear in open country is more complex.
“Probably one of the biggest frustrations is shooting a small bear,” Glauner said.
Judging a bear can be difficult. The conventional wisdom is to look at the ears, but that doesn’t always work.
“I’ve seen some really big bears with really big ears,” said Glauner. “In my experience, I look at the shape of the bear. If it looks round and big, it’s probably a small bear. A . . . big bear usually looks long and short. It can be deceiving.”
But these numbers don’t deceive.
Between 2002 and 2006, the statewide bear harvest ranged between 2,231 and 2,443 bears annually. Only Montana comes anywhere close with a 21-year average of 1,080 bears on the meat pole.
The Clearwater Region is the top-producing area in the state. It has accounted for 753 bears, or 34 percent of the statewide annual harvest in 2006 (the most recent data available).
The Panhandle Region followed closely behind with 639 filled tags representing 29 percent of the statewide harvest.
The Southwest Region was third with 477 bruins at 21 percent.
The fall harvest claimed 46 percent of the total statewide annual harvest.
Sportsmen throughout the northern Rocky Mountain range must keep in mind the return of the black bear’s cousin, the grizzly.
“In some of our areas, grizzlies are common and hunters should anticipate the possibility of conflicts,”
said Compton. “Island Park, northern Idaho and all along the border with Montana to the Selway, grizzly activity is most prevalent. Especially in Island Park, in fact, there is a prohibition on using bait or hounds for this reason.”
But there are some phenomenal spot-and-stalk opportunities in these places.
Just follow one of the original 10 Commandments of hunting — know your target.
For more information about hunting in Idaho, visit http://fishandgame. idaho.gov/cms/hunt.
Also, check out Outdoor International and their bear hunting opportunities at http://gothunts.com.
Ron Aasheim, administrator for the Communication and Education Division of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said black bear populations in the Treasure State are in good shape.
“We are harvesting a miniscule percentage of bears,” he said.
The state’s spring season opens April 15. Boars have a tendency to emerge earlier and this early start to the hunting season reduces the sow harvest.
The fall season opens Sept. 15, after the berries have ripened. That dictates a conservative harvest, said Aasheim.
Another factor that contributes to lower harvests is a ban on bait and hounds.
Although your hunting methods are severely limited in Montana, the state offers many excellent locations to hunt. The northwest part of Big Sky Country is probably your best bet.
“There’s some tougher terrain, and it’s heavily timbered, but there are very, very healthy populations of bears in that region,” said Aasheim.
Keep on the lookout for grizzlies wherever you hunt in Montana.
Between 1990 and 2007, 18 grizzlies have been killed by hunters or in response to injuries inflicted to hunters. That’s about a bear a year.
The state wants hunters to carry bear spray in case of grizzly encounters. All bear hunters also have to pass an online bear identification test before they can buy a license.
Over the last 21 years, Region 1 consistently produced the greatest number of bears in the state with an average annual harvest of 549 bruins. BMU 106 is at the top of the regional list, as well as the statewide list, for highest average annual kills with 105.
Region 3 gave up an average annual take of 197 bruins with BMU 341 leading the list at 79 filled tags. Regions 2, 4 and 5 round out the summary with 155, 124 and 55 average annual kills, respectively.
Aasheim also wanted to tell hunters to be careful not to shoot sows with cubs at their side.
“At the sign of danger, a sow may send her cubs up a tree,” said Aasheim. “So be absolutely sure that any bear you shoot is unaccompanied by cubs.”
For more information, go to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Web site at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/default.html.
The 2008 black bear harvest in the Centennial State of 760 bruins was the best since 2002 and exceeded the 2007 total of 615 by nearly 24 percent.
The top-producing area in the state was Unit 78 where 42 bears were taken for all seasons.
The September seasons gave up 22 of those animals, four through archery, four through muzzleloaders and the balance through Regular Rifle season. The first, second and third Rifle seasons produced eight, nine and three bears, respectively.
Unit 521 was the second-highest-producing area with a total harvest for all seasons of 34 bears. The September seasons produced 17 of those animals with four each having been taken with archery and muzzleloaders and the balance in the Regular Rifle season. The first, second and third rifle seasons gave up eight, eight and one bear, respectively.
Next on the list was Unit 85 with a total of 33 filled tags through all seasons. Sixteen bears were counted in all September seasons, two of which were taken by archery and two by muzzleloader. The first, second and third rifle seasons produced three, seven and five bears, respectively. Additionally, two bears were taken in this unit through the Ranching For Wildlife program.
Additional information and a handy hunt planner are available on the Web site for the Colorado Division of Wildlife at http://wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/PlanYourHunt.
Dave Moody, trophy game coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish, said most of the Cowboy State’s harvest strategies are designed to maintain a stable population.
“Based on indices collected from harvest statistics, we estimate that Wyoming’s black bear population is relatively stable,” he said.
Wyoming’s bear seasons, both spring and fall, are based on a quota system. When the quota is reached, the season closes. This affects the fall season.
“Seasons in the western portion of the state tend to stay open longer due to the amount of occupied bear habitat,” Moody said.
Island populations in the Sierra Madres, Snowy Range, Casper Mountain and Bighorns can close fairly quickly in the fall depending on the number of bears that are killed in the spring season. If the spring quota is exceeded, the fall quota is reduced accordingly.
However, other than this dynamic, hunters can anticipate relatively consistent odds for filling tags.
“Hunter success is pretty similar across the state,” Moody said. “Success is higher in the spring.”
This fact can be attributed primarily to the hunting styles associated with seasonal preferences. Almost all of the bears harvested in the spring are shot over baits, while most of the bears killed in the fall are from spot-and-stalk approaches, according to the trophy game coordinator.
“Bears appear to be more susceptible to baits in the spring due to their depressed physiological state from just emerging from their dens,” he said.
As in many other locales, fall hunting is generally incidental to other big-game hunting activities. Hunters often pack a bear license on the chance they may encounter a bear while hunting elk or deer.
Bear Management Unit 101 is the top-producing region during the fall season. It gave up 34 percent of the statewide harvest during the 2008 season. This BMU consists of those hunt areas adjacent to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Areas 29 (Spread Creek), and 20 (Gros Ventre) topped the list among the six Hunt Areas contained in BMU 101.
Hunt Area 25 (North Absaroka) in BMU 201 was the third-highest-producing area in the state for the fall season.
Other areas with noteworthy totals included Area 22 (Pacific Creek), Area 17 (Hoback), Area 2 (Burgess Junction) and Area 7 (Laramie Peak).
“Make sure you stress that hunters need to check the harvest hotline to make sure female quotas have not been filled prior to going to the field and harvesting a bear,” Moody said.
He also urged fall black bear hunters to carry bear spray if they are hunting in the western half of the state.
For more information, go to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Web site at http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/hunting/index.asp.