To Hunt a Grizzly
June 01, 2018
Craig Boddington shares his personal stories and gives insight on how to hunt a grizzly
Snows had been deep that winter. Shaded passes were still blocked in May. Fed by runoff from sunny slopes, streams had tunneled underneath the snow, creating treacherous crossings at every low spot. It was late in the hunt before we could get the horses near a favorite grizzly basin. Once we made it, we found a dry boulder where we could spend the day glassing the slides above.
Sure enough, there was a grizzly up there, foraging for new green where most of the snow was gone. Outfitter Ed Langland had hurt his back, so I went up alone, struggling through the deep drifts. The bear had been moving from left to right, so I angled for an intercept and came out directly below it. I knew I was pushing the distance, but this was my only chance. The .375 hit hard, and for a few seconds I felt very alone as the bear hurtled downslope toward me. I hit it again, and the grizzly came to rest in some brush about 50 yards away.
A Different World
That was my first grizzly, killed some 40+ years ago. It was not a big bear, but it was a boar with the classic varicolored hair that gives the grizzled bear its common name. The place was British Columbia’s Kootenay region, just a few miles north of the U.S. border. Back then, Montana had a season, with a quota of 25 bears, and all of western Canada was still open, from Alberta and NWT’s Mackenzie Mountains west across BC and Yukon, and on to Alaska.
Today things are different. Alberta and the Mackenzies closed grizzly hunting many years ago. Alberta’s closure was probably necessary, with its numbers declining, but today grizzlies have increased and reoccupied former range. Human-bear conflict and livestock depredation are up, but reopening a hunting season is a difficult enterprise. The closing of bear hunting in the Mackenzie District was an early victory of politics over scientific management. In 2017, British Columbia, despite having a healthy bear population, announced that grizzly hunting would close.
One bright spot has been the opening of a few “barren land” grizzly permits on the mainland tundra of Nunavut, formerly the eastern half of Northwest Territories. Conducted after freeze-up in fall and before spring thaw, these highly successful hunts are serious Arctic expeditions, somewhere between muskox and polar bear in difficulty. Nunavut manages its wildlife both as subsistence hunting and a business for remote villages. I could be wrong, but I expect the nonresident hunting to continue.
Yukon Territory remains open with both fall and spring bear seasons. The Yukon is vast and sparsely populated. With a human population of just 35,000, it’s said that the Yukon has more grizzlies than people. That’s not quite true, but the Yukon does have a stable population of perhaps 7,000 bears and, luckily, doesn’t share Alberta’s and British Columbia’s situation of being dominated by urban politics.
Some Yukon outfitters offer specialized grizzly hunts, but most grizzly hunting there is part of fall mixed-bag hunts. I’ve only hunted the Yukon twice, primarily for sheep but both times with a grizzly tag in my pocket. The first time I never saw a bear, but my buddy, Mike Satran, shot a grizzly when it charged his horse string. The second time I got serious about grizzlies was after I got my ram. We glassed several, and I made two stalks on a beautiful boar on two different days. Both times the bear gave me the slip, which is part and parcel to grizzly hunting. With B.C.’s 15,000 grizzlies effectively out of competition, it seems likely that more Yukon outfitters will develop their bear hunting.
Alaska doesn’t separate coastal brown bear populations from interior grizzlies. Overall population is estimated at 30,000 bears, generally stable or increasing. Alaska is politically dominated by metropolitan Anchorage, but I don’t see Alaska’s bear hunting as endangered. The frontier spirit there is strong, as is sound management. Bear populations are closely studied, and their impact on key food sources (mainly moose) is well understood.
The Alaskan brown bear and interior grizzly are the same species. Along hundreds of miles of boundary, bears wander back and forth, Alaskan brown bears one minute and grizzlies the next. Even so, the fish-fed coastal bears hibernate for shorter seasons and grow larger – and the hunting is generally more successful. Any hump-backed, dish-faced, long-clawed bear is a magnificent trophy – but despite the smaller size, I consider the interior grizzly the superior of the two and a harder-won prize.
Here in the Lower 48, grizzlies have recovered in the Yellowstone and Glacier Park ecosystems, and I believe I will live to see appropriately limited and carefully managed grizzly hunting reopened in Montana and Wyoming. Only time will tell.
It Isn’t That Easy...
The ability to purchase a tag gives you the legal right to hunt a big bear. This is a fantastic experience, but far short of a guarantee. A perception problem with grizzlies is they need – and use – a lot of space. As Jack O’Connor famously said (relative to another species):
“Even where there’s a lot of them there aren’t very many of them.”
It’s not easy to count grizzlies, and you can spend a lot of time in good grizzly country without seeing any bears. This applies to casual visitors who don’t see bears – which is partly why B.C. shut down – and it also applies to grizzly hunting.
Often you will find tracks and scat along trails and streambeds, and in snow you’ll often glass grizzly tracks far up on the slopes. Absent sign, there is cause for concern. Bears may be present, but your valley may be empty. Movement is usually relative to food sources, and bears travel a lot in search of groceries. However, in a good berry year they may camp out in a rich patch, and if a bear makes (or finds) a kill, it will often stay close by until the meat is finished.
Stalking a bear on a natural kill is generally fair game, but baiting is illegal. In snow, tracking is practical; this is the method of choice in Nunavut and is occasionally done in Alaska and Yukon when conditions are right. These are exceptions. The No. 1 rule of grizzly hunting is lots of time on the glass.
Depending on terrain, you can move from vantage point to vantage point – or, in a likely place, camp out and glass for hours (and days). Grizzlies are most active in the late afternoon, but you can see a bear any time. Weather is important; bears like sunny days and move less in rain and snow. Regardless of weather, without visibility your chances are very limited.
In September 2014 my daughter Brittany and I hunted in northern B.C. with veteran outfitters Ron and Brenda Fleming. The weather was glorious, and we saw grizzlies every day. Most were on a big slope across the lake from camp, glassed comfortably from lawn chairs while we munched Brenda’s pastries. We weren’t hunting bears; we were glassing for goats and caribou. Ron didn’t have a bear left on quota, and we didn’t have a tag. Two years later, my wife, Donna, and I were back in the same camp. This time I had a grizzly tag, but we drew a week of rain and fog. Donna got the goat she was after, but we never saw a grizzly.
Figuring the Odds
The way these things so often work is you see bears when you don’t have a tag and vice versa. It’s a rare event to bump into a bear. Most of the time, bears are spotted and judged from afar, then a stalk is initiated. My experience is that finding a suitable bear is the hardest part. Once a stalk is planned, the odds get better but the outcome is still far from assured.
In the 1970s I was 100 percent on grizzlies (one for one). In the late ’80s I did a fall hunt in B.C.’s Skeena Mountains. Great berry year, great bear area; we were knee-deep in grizzlies and made stalks every other day. Each time something happened: changes in wind, acts of God, who knows. I shot a bear on the last day, a lone bear that turned out to be an ancient sow.
Fast-forward a decade. I wanted one big grizzly, and I chose the Noatak drainage in Arctic Alaska with Dave Leonard. We got one – but it took three tries. I am not convinced spring is better than fall, but it probably is in the Arctic because travel is possible on snow machines and snowshoes.
The timing must be right; the idea is to catch bears just coming out of their dens. This perfect window varies with the year. The first time we were too early and winter still reigned. The second time we were too late, and the bears were long out of their dens and covering ground. On the last day, we glassed a nice bear and put on the snowshoes, but he vanished into snowy hills. The third time we caught it just right.
These bears often kill a moose after leaving their dens, then bury it and lie on top so that the meat ferments. We found a big bear on a kill in an open bowl and went in on snowshoes. Ravens were acting as sentries, so we couldn’t get close. In this era, we had a rangefinder, but it was useless in horizontal snow.
As with my first grizzly, I have no idea the distance, probably a similar 250 yards, but we got the job done.
This was a beautiful boar and probably my last. That would give me 60 percent lifetime success. But that isn’t the end of the saga. The weather got us on that fall hunt in B.C. in 2016. I mentioned two hunts in the Yukon, but in recent years
I also made two fall hunts in the Brooks Range. Both times a Dall sheep was the goal, but I carried a bear tag and for sure we were looking for bears. We saw plenty of sign, but between the two hunts we saw just one small grizzly.
Mind you, chances are better if you hunt grizzly to the exclusion of all else, but I’m at a lifetime average of about 30 percent success on grizzlies, which I think is very realistic. For those interested in playing the odds, or who desire just one big bear, a sensible goal: Coastal brown bear hunting is more successful because better food concentrates more bears. Donna has done one brown bear hunt and got a monster; she’s had two grizzly tags and is zero for two. I haven’t hunted coastal bears as much as grizzlies, but I’m about 75 percent over 35 years, also realistic.
I can’t say for sure that I’ll ever hunt another grizzly or brown bear. I’ve had my chances and perhaps shouldn’t. But maybe just once more. The hunt for a big bear is a marvelous experience for an amazing creature. I rate the interior grizzly as the top game animal in North America, the real symbol of our American wilderness, and one of our more difficult prizes. I hate to see losses like British Columbia – it’s not good for our industry, not good for other wildlife, and, ultimately, not good for the bears. Fortunately, there is still plenty of opportunity. The dream is still alive – and it’s worth pursuing.