Hunters watch the retrival of the grizzly bear killed in Grand Teton National Park in 2012. As a result of the incident, the park closed about eight miles of the wooded Snake River bottom lands to hunting in an effort to reduce conflicts. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile )

Conflicts with hunters is the No. 1 cause of death for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, said Steve Cain senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.

That’s why it’s important to understand how bears and people use the landscape during the park’s annual elk reduction program. A new study aims to help answer several questions, including whether bears from the surrounding area come to the park to take advantage of the gut piles when the hunt starts, said Mike Ebinger, a research technician with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

To track bear movements outside Grand Teton researchers set up hair snares, which lure bears to an area with an attractant surrounded by a fence. The bear goes over or under the wire, leaving behind its hair. Scientists can analyze hair caught in the snares for DNA and can compare that to data compiled on Greater Yellowstone grizzlies.

Researchers also want to know how bears are moving on the landscape relative to the hundreds of gut piles left during the hunt. “That’s a lot of resources during a time period that’s critical for bears,” Ebinger said.

By tracking bears already fitted with GPS collars, Ebinger can see if bears move around during the elk hunt, or stay in the hunting areas.

The other component of the study looks at how bears and people interact with each other during the hunt. Hunters voluntarily carry GPS units to track their movements. Ebinger uses the data to see how close they come to collared bears and whether it’s the hunter stumbling upon the grizzly, or if the animals come upon the humans. The data could help hunters move more safely around the landscape by identifying where, when and how the bears are moving in relation to hunters.

Grand Teton Ranger Ira Blitzblau talks with a hunter at Teton Point Overlook after other hunters shot a grizzly bear during the annual park elk hunt in 2012.

The elk reduction program in Grand Teton National Park is a dangerous enough time for bears. Federal biologists recently increased their estimate of how many grizzlies will die at the hands of hunters during the hunt.

The goal of the study is not about changing hunting regulations or practices in the park, Ebinger said. It’s about providing data on what drives human-bear encounters and then finding ways to mitigate conflict risks. “We want to learn from it so we can be safer in bear country, so both people and bears can do what they need to do,” he said.

The research is among the first to look at bear and hunter interactions, according to Cain. The study is funded by a grant from Natural Resource Preservation Program, allowing U.S. Geological Survey scientists to perform research in the national park.

Hunters see bears every year, but there are rarely serious interactions between people and grizzlies, Cain said.  In the last 25 years there have been three incidents of hunters mauled by grizzlies in the park and in the John D. Rockefeller Parkway, and one incident in which hunters killed a bear, according to Cain.

Hunters go out in the early morning and at dusk. They move quietly and often alone.

“I’m a hunter myself, and that adds up to things you shouldn’t be doing if you are trying to avoid grizzly bear encounters,” Cain said.

With more bears in the ecosystem the chance of hunter-bear encounters increases. And not just in the park. The data will be applicable to all areas where hunters and grizzlies share the landscape, researchers said. “The potential implications on this will grow well beyond the National Parks,” said Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Grizzly bear #399 strolls with cubs on the Moose-Wilson Road. (courtesy Grand Teton National Park — click to enlarge)

The data will be used by Wyoming Game and Fish, which is helping with the study, along with wildlife managers in Idaho and Montana.

“These concerns are really reflective of what wildlife managers in the entire ecosystem are facing,” van Manen said.

Current funding allows for two years of data collection and research, but Ebinger hopes the effort will be extended so researchers can account for changes such as variance in weather and food availability over several years.

Ebinger will begin analyzing the first set of data this winter. For the rest of the hunting season, researchers remind people to be alert.

“The big message is carry bear spray and don’t hunt alone,” Ebinger said. “If you make a lot of noise on the landscape, you are unlikely to run into bears, but you can’t do that hunting elk. That’s the real challenge — trying to be stealthy on the landscape and not run into a bear.”

Tips for hunters in bear country

° Don’t leave a carcass in the field overnight. It increases the chance a bear will claim it. If a bear does claim a carcass, don’t try to push the bear off. Contact a ranger.
° Stay out of low visibility areas.
° Be alert and ready in case you encounter a bear.
° Carry bear spray.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. State and federal agencies have formed an unholy
    alliance with environmentalists to con hunters about bear spray. They claim
    research proves bear spray is more effective than a firearm; ergo, hunters
    should use bear spray. The spray provides better protection for hunters than
    their gun, and saves bears. But the data from bear spray research is about
    spray use by hikers, biologists hazing bears, and other non-hunters. Why don’t
    hunters use bear spray? Because when a hunter carrying a rifle has a surprise encounter
    with a grizzly, bear spray is not a safe or realistic option. Some field
    carries for rifles would require a right-handed hunter to deploy bear spray
    left-handed. A hunter using the cradle carry or two-hand (ready) carry would
    have to drop his rifle to use bear spray. Hunters sling rifles on their “off
    shoulder;” if they clip bear spray to the other shoulder strap on their pack,
    the can of bear spray will be in the way when they shoulder their rifle to
    shoot an elk. Bear spray advocates fail to disclose that most bear spray
    research involved curious or non-aggressive bears. In contrast, all data from
    Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska is about people using guns
    for self-defense during bear attacks. Comparing the results of bear spray
    research to firearms research is dishonest. Bear spray isn’t about hunter
    safety; it’s about saving grizzlies from hunters who shoot bears in legitimate
    cases of self-defense. State fish & game agencies have betrayed hunters.
    Dave Smith
    Avalon, CA