Working my way along a fast-flowing river, I glimpsed a patch of brown through the trees. Digging at something along the river's edge, there was my grizzly. As a resident hunter, I'd waited eight years before finally drawing a coveted tag in Alberta. It was early May and there were still patches of snow in low-lying shady areas. As quickly as possible I extended the legs on my bipod, lay out in a prone position and centered the crosshairs of my Leupold on his chest. At this time of year it's especially important to ensure that the bear is alone. Sows with cubs are off-limits. Everything looked good. A six-footer, he wasn't an old boar, but for a self-guided hunt and my first-ever grizzly I wasn't going to be too selective. Waiting just long enough to make sure everything was in order I gently squeezed the trigger on my 7 mm Remington Magnum. He collapsed on the spot! I'd like to say that was the end of the tale, but it just ain't so. Much to my surprise, he stood up. A second round was needed to put him down for the count!
Grizzly bear. It's a name that provokes fear, anger, admiration or sympathy. Ursus arctos horribilis - even its scientific designation has a chilling ring. The term fits with the image that grizzly lore presents us; humped back, razor sharp claws, bone crunching jaws, and rage. There are other more benign images as well - the solitary, silver ghost, ambling through alpine meadows with its lazy, pigeon-toed gait; the esteemed symbol of pristine wilderness, eulogized in newspaper articles that are unfortunately more often based on emotion than fact.
Regardless of how we perceive the grizzly, it is still one of the most sought-after game animals, a species that almost every big game hunter yearns to take.
But why? There's no denying the grizzly evokes an emotional response. Just consider the dread most of us feel at the prospect of coming face to face with one on its own turf. Most backcountry users, and yes, even most hunters take extra precautions to avoid a confrontation with the great bear. Then there are those of us who actively hunt or hope to someday hunt this amazing bear.
Grizzly Bear Facts
Grizzly bears are but one of several sub-species of brown bear. We often confuse the inland grizzly with the Alaskan brown bear or even the Kodiak subspecies which are strictly coastal bears. To simplify, brown bears inhabiting the interior of Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories, as well as the lower 48 states are considered to be grizzlies. Once roaming even the vast prairie grasslands, grizzlies could be found across several states and provinces. Where suitable habitat remains, today grizzly bear still thrive in the more remote boreal forests, low arctic tundra, foothills and mountains of Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.
Over little more than a century, with intense encroachment and rapid habitat loss, not to mention over-hunting, grizzly bears have all but vanished in most of the lower 48 states. According to information posted by The Great Bear Foundation (www.greatbear.org ), as many as 60,000 grizzlies inhabited the lower 48 states at one time. Today that number is estimated to be less than 1,200. The only states recognized to still have grizzly bears are Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Grizzly bears are thriving in British Columbia, but Alberta's biologists are presently researching to determine the status of grizzlies in that province. Where numbers were once thought to be as high as 6,000, most recent information suggests that that Alberta's grizzly population is stable at around 1,000 bears.
Aside from the Barrenground subspecies that dwells on the open low arctic tundra, grizzlies generally prefer remote wilderness areas comprised of river valleys, forests, and open meadows. Considered territorial, most grizzlies living in areas with good habitat have a home range of between 10 and 24 miles. In some instances, researchers have documented grizzlies roaming several hundred square miles.
Contrary to sensational lore, inland grizzlies are much smaller than their coastal relatives. On all fours, they rarely stand higher than four feet at the shoulder and on average measure six to seven feet from head to tail. Male grizzlies (boars) are generally about a third larger than females (sows). Yes, they do grow larger and many hunters strive to shoot trophy-sized bears (i.e., 8 - 9 foot plus), but these specimens are rare indeed. An average mature boar will usually weigh around 550 pounds and a mature sow will typically weigh around 350 pounds. Size will most often be determined by their diet. Distinguishing features of the grizzly are the shoulder hump, wide head, grizzled appearance (i.e., often darker legs and lighter brown with silver-tipped guard hairs), and longer curved claws (usually two to four inches in length).
Grizzly bears are omnivorous opportunistic feeders. While they most frequently dig for and feed on plants (e.g., grass, roots, berries) and insects, they also actively hunt small game (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) and big game (e.g., deer, elk, moose, sheep) or consume carrion if and when available.
With the exception of the annual rut which occurs in late May and June, grizzly bears are considered to be solitary animals. Most active early and late in the day, mid-day hours are often spent sleeping under the shady cover of the heavy forest canopy. Certainly grizzlies may be seen moving about throughout the day, but particularly during hot summer days, their heavy coat prompts them to look for cooler cover during daylight hours.
As grizzly bears prepare for the cold winter months, they dig a den, often on steep slopes. Again, contrary to common thought, grizzly bears aren't true hibernators. They actually go into a state of torpor, which means that their metabolism slows dramatically putting them into a sleep state. They do in fact awaken a few times during the cold winter months and will often exit their den to walk around for a short time, then return to sleep.
What to Look For and Where
Grizzly bears season are open the spring or fall depending on regulations and jurisdictions. As a rule, most are hunted in the spring. At this time of the year, bears are emerging from dens and looking for vegetation to feed on. In April, most mountain and foothills regions are still blanketed with snow. By May, the snow is beginning to melt at lower elevations. In turn, May can be the best month to hunt spring grizzlies. Bears that have left their dens may travel on the snow-covered mountain slopes, but most will migrate down into the lower reaches of their territory to look for easier forage. For this reason shorelines along rivers and streams are thought to be an ideal place to hunt early on.
Although grizzly bears may be hunted with hounds in British Columbia, for instance, spot and stalk hunting is the most common strategy employed.
Tracks, bear scat (excrement), diggings, and claw markings on trees are the tell-tale signs you want to look for. In the early spring you may discover tracks in the snow, but more than likely your best odds may be in the sand and mud along waterways. Remember, grizzly tracks have much deeper claw indentations than those made by black bears. If you're lucky enough to locate piles of fresh bear scat, then you're in the zone.
Early in the spring, grizzly bears will be searching for the first green grasses. In turn, south-facing slopes with grassy meadows are ideal places to begin glassing. Should you be fortunate enough to find a den, consider beginning your search there, scouring the nearby ridges, slopes, and valleys.
Grizzlies can have a large home range and each will roam differently. In some areas, particularly in the mountains, you may see the same family of bears on a routine basis, but this isn't always the case. Boars tend to travel more, especially as the breeding season commences. Sows with cubs will often be seen hanging out in the same area.
In the foothills and mountain regions a lot of time must be spent with your binoculars or spotting scope in hand. Carefully and meticulously scouring every detail, take extra care to analyze anything that looks like a brown or grayish blob. Remember, grizzly bears spend a lot of time digging up vegetation and scavenging for insects and other forage. If you're in good grizzly bear habitat, you should locate diggings, or piles of disturbed grass and moss turned over. These diggings are unmistakable.
Grizzly hunting in the boreal forest regions can be more difficult. It is often more of a chance encounter in the vast forest areas. In the same manner, open slopes along river valleys and cut-lines typically offer your highest odds for encountering a grizzly. Again, anywhere that the first green grasses are beginning to grow in the spring may be a good place to begin your search.
In the fall, grizzlies may be found just about anywhere food is plentiful. River valleys and open green hillsides, mountain slopes, and meadows are still among the best places to look. Although baiting of grizzly bears is universally prohibited, if you're lucky enough to discover a fresh natural kill site, chances are if you wait long enough you'll see a bear nearby.
There's no point in beating around the bush. Mismanagement and habitat loss has brought us to where we are today. With no hunting opportunity whatsoever in the lower 48 states, grizzlies are considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. What this means is that unless protective measures are taken, this great bear is on its way to extinction. If I may boldly speak for most hunters, none of us want to see grizzlies disappear. Yes, I am among the first to fight for my right to hunt them. I believe they are an amazing animal. At the same time, I would be the first to support hunting season closures if sound science suggests that the population can not sustain a hunter harvest.
With that said where hunting seasons still exist, grizzly bears are thriving. Animal rights activists preach otherwise, but the facts state that grizzly bears are thriving in northern and western Canada, and especially in Alaska. The number of bears killed by hunters pales in comparison to the threat imposed by habitat loss due to oil and gas development and other encroachments.
I took my grizzly bear several years ago in Alberta. Mine was in fact one of the last grizzly bears ever taken out of the Cadomin area. In fact, as of 2005, there has been a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in Alberta. Imposed until biologists can get a better understanding on the status of our great bears, there is to be no grizzly hunting in that province until further notice. Yes, this is a very political issue. In my opinion sound science has not necessarily been considered in this decision. Many anti-hunting groups are actively working to stop grizzly bear hunting world-wide. Alberta has been an especially easy target based on the limited available habitat and range of this great bear.
Now for the good news. Grizzly bears can still be sport hunted in British Columbia (B.C.), Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. Grizzly populations in these jurisdictions are thriving. With hundreds of thousands of square miles of inaccessible wilderness, many authorities have boldly suggested that there are more grizzly bears now than ever before in documented history.
Although some jurisdictions maintain concessions for second kinship relatives, each state, province, and territory requires that non-residents be accompanied by a professional licensed guide/outfitter. For more information about grizzly bear hunting opportunities visit the following websites:
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada.
Member of OWAA & OWC.