The provincial government’s recent decision to end the grizzly bear decoration investigation later this year has been loudly praised by environmental organizations and just as loudly condemned by guides and hunters.
CODY, Wyo. — A thin covering of snow had settled across the Wyoming landscape because our searching group worked up the river bottom trail soon after sunrise.
In the entry to the road, which we had walked several times in recent decades, we had seen a local Jeep and 2 sets of footprints, tipping us off that there were other hunters in the region called Alpine Canyon. And then we came across another footprint. Big track, big claws.
There’s something unsettling about walking into the hills near Yellowstone National Park and searching down to see a fresh grizzly bear trail in the snow. This one was new, on top of the tracks left recently by another hunters, and absolutely defined even though it was still snowing. The bear has been shut.
I had been out West with my hunting friend Mike Carson along with his son, Spencer. Mike and I have been making this trip since 1984. We were much younger then. Climbing a hill at sunrise is becoming harder in my mid afternoon ankles and knees. At age 59 I find myself becoming stiff a lot quicker now.
In addition, it occurred to me back in the old days we hadn’t ever concerned about grizzlies. Now we must, because the predators have undergone a population explosion even though they are still “jeopardized,” a very debatable issue with the regional folks who are in the Cody region.
One of those vacationers is Mike Christianson, the proprietor of Shosone Lodge & Guest Ranch where we stay on our Wyoming excursions. The first day we arrived, Mike told how a little younger grizzly had billed him two right out the cottages, once only because he snatched up his 2 small kids and darted into a chain-link enclosure.
The bear crashed into the fence but then backed off when Mike and his team fired several “firecracker” cubes at his toes, making a loud boom. The bear left the world, and while Mike’s 9-year old kid called the adventure “amazing,” he knew that the young boy was potentially major trouble. The stand returned once more had to be afraid off.
The same week, a big, dark-colored boar came into camp and has been searching through cabin windows, Mike explained. “There are far too many bears,” the Wyoming native told me.
That seems to be the overall belief in Cody and elsewhere among people who live with sparks. They want grizzlies delisted and control of searches returned to the state, much like the wolf situation in Wisconsin.
Making sure our bear spray has been attached to our straps after coming round the fresh grizzly prints we made our way upward Alpine Canyon leading into the hills and began our ascent. Mike and Spencer took 1 side, going north by following the tracks of both of the other hunters while I scaled up another way.
A short time after my walkie-talkie crackled and Spencer reported they’d come over the 2 hunters, young locals from Cody, who had encountered the stand at close range. They had been spooked and in their way back out to their Jeep.
I kept climbing the steep stones below a meadow with a wonderful view, believing that using all the bear having only been seen about a mile away there was little to be worried about.
About 15 minutes after I had reason to be worried.
The afternoon had broken grey, with an almost murky, filtered light. As I climbed there was a rock ledge to my best along with a stand of aspens still holding yellow leaves into my left and right forward of me. About 30 metres in front of me the terrain leveled out, giving you a wonderful view of the valley.
I was just going to lower my mind, catch my breath and create a quick charge to the very best when, for whatever reason I stopped to look up. Had I done so I likely would have walked head first into the 400-pound, blonde-colored grizzly that stepped out of the aspens roughly 20 metres away and stood directly facing me.
As big as he was, the grizzly hadn’t made a sound. He had been so close I can see his eyes float. Since he put his nose into the air and then turned his head to check at me, I suddenly knew what it means to have your “blood.” We briefly made eye contact, and I gradually looked down because he stiffened both front legs and did a leap before taking about three steps toward me.
I learned after that particular body language is a sign the bear isn’t pleased to see you. A grizzly walking off, lying or sitting down is demonstrating that an unwillingness to fight and would like to be left alone. Aggression in grizzly bears is frequently exhibited by lunging, as that one did. But a couple of minutes later, looking straight at me, he resigned. Combined signals, I guess.
Whatever the case, bear spray in my hand, I slowly walked back down the way I came, checking every so often to ensure he was still sitting.
“I’ve got a bear here, 15 or 20 metres away,” I said gently on the radio as I retreated. I looked up to find the grizzly take a couple more steps and then sit down again, those dark eyes staring through me.
Back on the road I came over the two other hunters creating their own retreat. We chose the bear I’d encounter couldn’t have been the one they watched. We return to our vehicles and took a deep breath. They left for one more hunting area and I checked in around the radio.
Another local hunter driving stopped to warn me that a young bear, likely the one I encountered, had caused trouble in the region. He said there was also a massive boar and a sow with two cubs nearby. I radioed Mike and Spencer, who chose to return.
Two days later, as we climbed the ridges over Shoshone Lodge, the Carsons were billed by a bear we guess was the same one which went after Mike Christianson. It broke off the strike whenever they cried and conquer branches on trees.
“We only got to see a grizzly near as if you did,” Spencer said on the radio.
“Exciting, do not it?” I replied.
That bear is young and looks pretty competitive.
Back in the lodge that night we watched a record of a hunter being mauled by a grizzly only north of us. He survived, but the photographs were so gruesome.
And there were other reports. The grizzly news was heating up, and we had been right in the center of it. Cody hunting manual John Sheets was severely injured while field dressing an elk to a late-season cow hunt with a feminine hunter when she had been attacked by a grizzly. He said he rushed in and caught the stand by the neck and stabbed at it with his knife. The bear then retaliated, and whistles mentioned the remainder of the encounter is fuzzy.
The woman were able to get back to their horses and eventually met up with another outfitter. Sheets had a throw, stitches in his mind and had to own one ear sewn back on. The woman was in stable state.
Two weeks later, again near Cody, an off-duty sport warden shot and killed a charging grizzly.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department accounts there have been more human-bear battles this season. Eight grizzly bears have been shot in 13 events in which bears were attacking or charging. Four of those led in human accidents. It made us feel lucky we made out in 1 piece.
When we got home from our hunt we discovered the bear I encountered was trapped and relocated following continuing to create a stir. I am happy he was not murdered. Grizzlies make the wilderness even more complete, though “thrilling.”
It was a terrific trip, and it’s time to concentrate on our very own deer hunting season in Wisconsin.
But I can’t help but believe that although sitting in my stance on launching I shall take some comfort knowing I will not be chased out from a grizzly bear.
Thornley is the outdoors editor in the Spooner Advocate.
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