Hunting in Grizzly Country: Smart Choices Keep Bears and Hunters Safe

Last week, I sat down with John Meyer to discuss some tips for hunting in grizzly country⎼ smart and effective practices that minimize risk, help hunters avoid unwanted bear encounters and, importantly, keep both humans and bears alive. John is Executive Director at Cottonwood Environmental Law Center based in Bozeman, Montana. As an environmental attorney, he’s currently working on a few active cases to protect key grizzly habitat in the West. He is also a bowhunter. 

In John’s line of work, talking about the intersectionality of hunting and conservation is important because it brings a challenging conversation into focus. How can you be a hunter and have a conservation ethic? What can you do to keep yourself and grizzlies alive in bear country? It’s also a conversation that many Westerners don’t like to have with their neighbors because individual views on hunting – how to hunt, what to carry or not carry, what to shoot and when – are often strong, righteous and contentious. 

Hunting and Conservation – The Overlap in Grizzly Country

As a bowhunter, John carries bear spray rather than a gun when he heads into grizzly country. Whether you agree philosophically with him or not, it’s a proven fact that bear spray is more effective than a firearm for de-escalating unwanted bear encounters. 

When I asked John why he chooses bear spray over a gun, he responded that my question is a loaded one (no pun intended). “For me, it’s a matter of ethics and philosophy. When I go into the woods, I want to be part of the land and as wild as I can be. If I run into a bear, that’s okay. I don’t want to live life from a place of fear, but I also don’t want to be reckless. I have a family, and I choose to carry bear spray to keep myself safe.” 

There’s a certain acceptance of risk when you hunt. “If I only carry bear spray,” says John, “I know that if I encounter a bear it’s what I’ll be using [to de-escalate the situation]. This is a conscious choice, and an important one.” 

John and his twin sons with a freezer full of ethically-harvested wild elk, bow-hunted by John.

John also believes that hunters who travel into grizzly country have a responsibility to modify certain behaviors and practices in order to avoid unwanted encounters. Like others, he recognizes that hunting goes against almost everything people learn in bear safety talks and classes about how to keep yourself safe. For example, hunters often use cover scents, make noises to mimic other animals, are quiet and camouflaged, and spend much of their time slinking along through trees and shrubs. All of these, says John, are behaviors that increase your chances of running into a bear. It’s also precisely why hunters have such an important role to play in grizzly bear conservation. 

Being prepared, learning about bear biology and behavior, making smart decisions, and avoiding certain areas that bears prefer at different times of year is key to staying safe while hunting. So is bear-proofing your campsite. 

Best Practices for Hunting in Bear Country

John thoughtfully shared a few of his personal best practices with me. 

#1: Hunt with a partner.

This way, if either of you are successful in your objective, cleaning the animal and packing out the meat is quicker and more efficient. And if something happens while removing the meat from the carcass, there’s someone there to help. This just seems like good common sense to me, but hunting alone remains a popular practice.  

#2: Make noise.

If John successfully kills an elk while bowhunting, he is hyper-aware that the meat in front of him is food not only for himself, but for other wild animals as well. In grizzly country, no hunter wants a surprise visit from a hungry boar or a sow with cubs, so John gets really loud while he’s quartering and cleaning. He plays music on his phone. He yells, especially when alone or if his hunting partner needs to leave the kill site for some reason. In short, John uses his voice⎼ the only innately human tool he has that distinguishes a person as the top predator in the ecosystem. 

#3: Hang quarters away from the carcass.

John works quickly at the kill site to make sure the animal is quartered, removed and hung in a distant tree – at least 100 yards from the carcass. He says this last step is particularly important in bear country because other species will move into the kill site while you pack out the meat. If you don’t hang the quarters away from the carcass, there’s a good chance a bear will be there when you go back. And if that’s the case, it’s a battle you’ll likely lose. So do your due diligence and put some distance between the quarters and the carcass before you take out your first load.

John once found a black bear feeding on the carcass of an elk he’d just killed, so he can attest to the efficacy of this practice. He and his partner had already quartered the animal and hung the meat in a distant tree. Because they’d followed best practices, when they returned to pack out the rest of the meat they could do so safely without disturbing the feeding bear. John’s story highlights what is possible when hunters make small changes to their behaviors in order to avoid unwanted human-bear encounters.

Hunting and Conservation In Concert

This fall, John went bowhunting with a buddy up the Taylor Fork in Montana, a remote area that supposedly has one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in the United States. And he never carried a gun. He shared this picture of himself next to the elk he hunted on that trip. There’s a struggle, he reflects, with ego and machismo when someone takes a photo of themselves standing over a dead animal. But John hopes this picture elucidates something important; that people can have a strong conservation ethic and also hunt.

John processing the elk he successfully bow-hunted in the Taylor Fork region of Montana.

I asked John why our conversation matters. He replied that, “As a hunter, it’s important to me to have grizzly bears on the landscape. The landscape feels whole when grizzlies are on it, and I feel more whole, too. My experience in the wilderness feels richer. I want to protect wild places⎼ I want to see more coyotes, grizzlies and other species. I want a whole complement of wildlife in the ecosystem. I think it takes a certain level of humility and respect to say that grizzly bears belong on the landscape right next to humans.” 

So let’s all take a cue from this conservation-minded hunter⎼ if you plan to hunt this season, do your homework, carry bear spray, and follow best practices to keep yourself and grizzlies alive.