Advice for Fishing and Hiking in Bear Country

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

Part of my career with the National Park Service included time as the Yellowstone Madison River sub-district ranger in the 1960s, the East District ranger in the North Cascades from 1970 to 1975, and the superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve from September 1980 until March 1989. During the past 32 years I lived and worked where black and grizzly bears and bison and moose live. This article is what I learned from research, observations of animal behavior, speaking to mauled victims and having been personally charged by a grizzly on three different occasions. I was never mauled by a bear.

Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park and all the national parks in Alaska have grizzly bears. Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and both state and national parks in South Dakota have many wild bison. The bears and bison sometimes attack park visitors. Hunters in the areas surrounding parks have also endured attacks by a grizzly. The possibility of a grizzly bear attack is virtually guaranteed if you encounter a sow grizzly with cubs, and many grizzlies outside the park have learned during hunting season that the sound of rifle fire could mean an elk or deer has been shot. The grizzly moves in the direction of the rifle fire because it could find a dead animal or its gut pile to feed upon.

All large western parks in the lower forty-eight states and all Alaskan national parks receive visitors by the thousands from every state and many foreign countries from all over the world each year. From a bear’s point of view, people are the aggressors in their habitat. Yellowstone and the surrounding Rocky Mountain streams and rivers represent a fisherman’s historic paradise for the quality of fishing and the majestic scenery. While that is true; I agree the quality of the fishing in the Rocky Mountains, the North Cascades and Alaska is excellent. But, I have also experienced outstanding fly fishing in the limestone streams of central Pennsylvania and many of the lightly fished waters in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Quite a few of the visiting people arrive in the west with their families and some of them hike the trails and backcountry where they might encounter bears. Very few visitors, if any, know anything about dangerous game animals such as bears, moose and bison.

Bears are omnivorous, they eat both plants and animals. The greatest dangers from bears increases with the availability of food that humans bring with them, or if a sow with cubs is encountered. Both the black and grizzly bears in all the large national parks of the lower forty-eight states have been well trained by the many thousands of campers in large campgrounds who are cooking and have quantities of food. During the 1960s Yellowstone decided to close the garbage landfill and did it one day. This denied access by bears that regularly visited the landfill. Many of the grizzlies then visited the park campgrounds. The bears know where human food is available and patrol those areas regularly. They raid coolers, picnic baskets, and poorly managed scraps left after meals are cooked by the campers. Bear proof garbage cans help as well as bear proof food containers, but people mismanage food on a large scale in large campgrounds. In the 1960s, as many as 6 to 10 black bears would work the cars traveling the park roads. They approached the large number of cars lined up along the road where the occupants were hand feeding the bears snacks who approached those cars. That is illegal. The snacks are not healthy for the bears and it was a dangerous behavior for the visitors. Bears do not understand the potato chip bag is empty and bite the feeding hands. Such a traffic jam is known as a “bear jam.” I would walk down the line of cars issuing citations to those I saw feeding the bears. Those bears knew me. I had shot so many in the ass with a drug gun and transported them to some other remote section of the park that when they saw me coming they would all run to the side of the road and set down like Yogi in the Jellsystone Park cartoons. Visitors loved the show, they thought we had tamed bears in Yellowstone. Grizzly bears never worked the traffic jams. They made regular raids on the campground goodies the campers had. That was very dangerous. My response was to set a culvert trap baited with fish and capture those bears, which I transported many miles away. But, both the black bears and the grizzly bears would eventually return as they knew where food was easy to procure.

Realistically, this was an unmanageable situation, because I couldn’t control all the numerous quantities and sources of foods the bears were receiving. The Yellowstone and surrounding Rocky Mountain bears outside the park, which are the same bears, were habituated to human behavior and more dangerous because of it.

Bears in Alaska, though the same species, Ursus arctos horribillis and the Kodiak (large brown grizzly found along the coast) often labeled by some taxonomists as U.a. middendorffi, are, in my experience, a much different bear in their behavior. The coastal brown bear has an ample supply of salmon. Yes, they will still charge you, but the grizzly bears in Alaska have a more laid back attitude. I have been much closer to the interior and coastal grizzly bears than the Yellowstone grizzlies and they generally ignored me even when cubs were present. I was in a canoe on a river in Katmai and as I approached shore where there was very tall grass, two second year cubs stood up and the sow also stood. All looked at me inquisitively and I thought I was in deep trouble. But, they laid back down in the tall grass where they might have been finishing off a large salmon. I softly paddled my canoe out of there and selected another landing spot. In Denali I was no more than twenty feet from a sow who was laying on her back while playing with her cub, and she did not attack me. Why is there a different behavior from the Rocky Mountain grizzlies? Food! The Alaskan bears were not habituated to the possibility that humans had food. They never received food from humans. The three times I was charged by a bear was when I was fly fishing alone in a more remote section of Yellowstone.

When I settled in as the superintendent of Denali I instituted an interactive computer program at the visitor center that instructed prospective backcountry campers on avoiding bear habitat and what to do if charged by a bear. We also required all backcountry campers to store their food in a backpack bear resistant container which we loaned them, and they returned them when they completed their trip. However, in one instance a backcountry camper somehow had a grizzly get to his food stash. When there is one bear that has learned that humans are easy food sources that is a problem that will likely be repeated and it was. We trapped that one bear and eventually shipped him to West Yellowstone, Montana where he was a popular live exhibit for years. In the eight and a half years I was in Denali no bears mauled anyone and we didn’t kill any bears. We also started studies trying to determine if there was a magic number of hikers in a backcountry group that was a safer group size which was statistically less likely to be attacked by a grizzly. We settled on the belief that a minimum of three, hopefully talkative people, was a safer group. However, that does not apply to hikers and campers in the Rocky Mountain country. Nor, does it apply to a startled sow anywhere with cubs. And, in Alaska the black bears are more aggressive than the grizzly. A moose with youngsters has proven to be equally protective of their young.

I witnessed an attack by a large male bear who killed one of the sow’s two cubs and the sow immediately attacked the boar as the other cub ran off. The fight lasted quite a while before the boar killed the sow. He then covered her with dirt, was totally played out and went to sleep on top of the sow. The cub cried in the distance and would eventually die. Full time bear biologists believe bear boars kill bear cubs because they are eliminating the competition for the available food and reproduction rights. Life in the wild is a full-time job of survival.

In the 1960s rangers were issued what must have been the earliest development of pepper spray which we tested on the marauding “pan handling” black bears that created many bear jams. The stuff was worthless on the bears, but very effective on troublesome humans. Even though a bear was sprayed directly in the face, he licked his lips and ate the stuff. Denali, in the 1980s was a prime testing ground for the newest development of bear spray and in every instance the rangers reported that it worked extremely well. Bears were immediately repelled. But, in the end, we did not recommend it because we felt it could become a dangerous problem if the hiker/camper became overconfident believing he/she was fully protected or “indestructible” and purposely ignored the potential dangers of where they ventured in obvious bear habitat.

Prior to the development of the successful bear sprays available now, though in the minds of hunters, campers and backcountry hikers many believe a firearm is their best protection against a bear attack. In my opinion, that is definitely wrong. Peer reviewed studies examined many hundreds of human/ bear aggressions found that ninety-eight percent of the people who used bear spray were unharmed and no bears died as a result. Whereas, fifty-six percent of the people who used a gun were injured and sixty-one percent of those bears died. Not many people can place their shots accurately in the brief seconds it takes a charging bear to get to you. Your emotions are working against the steady hands you had on the firing range. This is true in all law enforcement shootings as well. If you employ a handgun, which is the most likely firearm a fisherman or hiker would be carrying; accuracy is questionable. And, caliber, bullet choice and powder load are another complex subject that I could write about extensively. Some bears have been killed when they charged after the hunter downed an elk or deer, but the hunter had a high-powered rifle. And, in those instances, it was an unnecessary killing of a bear that could have been avoided with the good bear sprays available today. Besides, if a sow was killed it means not only is she dead, but her cubs will die as well.

I have never heard of a bear charging several or more fishermen as normally found lined up along the many rivers of Yellowstone in the summer visitor season. Bears are smart animals either looking for food, protecting their cubs or just passing through. In the backcountry if you are alone a bear might charge as they did three times in my experience, but no cubs were involved, and all three bears quit their charge. In each charge, I never fled, I stood my ground and that is a factor in why they stopped the charge. It is a guarantee that if you run, you will be pursued, and a bear can run as fast up a mountain as a human track star can run on a track. If, you or any number of hikers startle a sow with cubs, she will attack. The only thing that can save you and your friends is one of the present-day bear sprays which should be carried on their hip by everyone in your group of hikers. Do not try to fill the 50mm lens on your camera with a picture of a bear, bison or moose. You will be too close. Some point and shoot digital cameras now have telescopic lens that can zoom out to 500mm. Much safer distance for a good picture.

You need to know that the bear sprays for sale today that are the most popular and effective are made by Tornado and UDAP but cannot be transported in your stored or carry on luggage if traveling by airline. You also cannot cross the Canadian border with it. You will have to buy it locally, and it is readily available. Store it in a hip holster so it is quickly available when fishing or hiking.

6 thoughts on “Advice for Fishing and Hiking in Bear Country

  1. Jim Murphy

    Well written and very informative…love the recommendation for brands…have carried bear spray…in Yellowstone and the Beartooths for years…so far have not had to use it…had one encounter with a grizzly on Soda Butte Creek but luck was on my side as I was downwind when I spotted the bear wandering along the bank several hundred yards upstream and was able to walk down and out it long before the bear sensed that I was near. I might add I did have my spray in hand, my head on a swivel, and was more than a bit nervous.
    Thanks For The Blog and Your Advise.

    Reply
  2. Paul W Smith

    Nice to read a well written article by someone very experienced in the subject who can support his position with evidence. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Mike Cline

    Clay,

    Very informative piece. Always good to hear from those with experience. Although I’ve encountered both black and grizzlies in the wild (Alaska and Yellowstone), most encounters were not hair raising. One encounter back in the 1970s, entirely of my own making, sticks strongly in my memory. While in the USAF in Anchorage I was invited on a hunting/camping trip with a few friends. There was a district near King Salmon on the Naknak river that was holding a special season on Brown Bear. We flew ourselves to King Salmon, got our permits and a briefing from the game warden as to the boundaries of the district we could hunt in. We boated across the river and up a major tributary to a suitable campsite where we’d be picked up in 3 days. Although I was armed with a Winchester 300 Magnum, I was thankful I never had opportunity to use it as it would have wholly inadequate. The first morning as the three of us began working our way up the ridges overlooking the creek, I encountered my first bear sign. It was a very fresh hind footprint of a brown bear deep in the muddy track. When I stood in the single track, both my size 11 boots didn’t even touch the edges of the track. I that point, I decided that I didn’t even want to see a bear that big, let alone try shoot it. I retreated to camp, did a bit of fishing and shot a few ptarmigan for the remainder of the trip. Luckily neither of my buddies encountered a bear either. I am glad we didn’t have bear spray to bolster our courage.

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  4. Michael Vorhis

    Good read Clay. While we’re adding our own bear tales, I have one: I’d gone years never seeing a bear despite herculean efforts to do so, sneaking up trails with camera in hand when the word ‘bear’ was mentioned, sleeping out sans tent while bears were ransacking campsites next to mine…never hearing a thing. I finally broke the spell on a trip to Denali one year and saw the subspecies known as “Denali Griz” everywhere, at one point being stalked for quite a ways down a narrow stream by a mother and her large cubs who were definitely looking for meat (when I got away I saw them digging frantically for ground squirrels to satisfy their red-meat craving; ground squirrels have the dubious distinction of being named the “leading source of protein for the region”).

    But it was the previous trip to Alaska that my real tale comes from: I was on a float trip with my father and two friends, an adventure I’d put together, no support and no guide, canoeing down the Noatak River which runs way out by the Bering sea and well above the Arctic Circle. We were catching chum salmon, and they were big.

    One evening we pitched camp a full 100 yards up from the river in a bush-encircled clearing on a huge sandbar. The other two guys were asleep in their little tent; my father was already snoring in ours. I stuffed some gear under the two overturned canoes to keep it dry, and climbed into our small backpacking tent and into my sleeping bag.

    Almost asleep, I heard a soft noise just by my ear, just outside the tent wall–it sounded like a footstep. “Chris? Gopal?” I asked. No answer. “Guys, is that you? What’s up?” Dead silence. I listened intently for twenty minutes but there was nothing; I drifted off to sleep.

    The next morning we found a ten-inch-wide bear print about four inches from where my head had been. The tracks led away and around the camp’s far side, and into the forest. Except for that single quiet soft noise I’d heard, the bear had melted into the night without making a sound.

    We’d been keeping all our supplies in bear-resistant canisters, and cleaning and bringing no salmon anywhere near our camps, and it was late summer with salmon aplenty and blueberries growing on the tundra ground like gravel…or I might not be here to type this.

    – Mike

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  5. Clay Cunningham

    You are right, the ground squirrels are on all the dinner menus of predators in Denali. I saw many red foxes with four or more ground squirrels in their mouth traveling the Denali road headed for her young ones and the den.. My compliments to you for your camp operation and management as food is a prime attraction that could, and often does, lead to a bear/human incident. Some people seem to have a special attraction to wildlife. For my brother, a retired State Police Trooper from Pennsylvania, it is rattlesnakes. They seem to be wherever he is. Apparently bears are mine. The first year I retired in Cody, WY, I fished the upper Shoshone River west of town and in eleven days I encountered eleven grizzlies though no close calls or incidents. I finally decided not to fish that area alone anymore.

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Yeah, the last thing we wanted was to be visited by predators out there, days from the next nearest human being. Save for hunting knives, canoe paddles and our wits, we were unarmed, relying on the plentiful natural food availability of the season to keep us off any menus.

      We tried to wash hands after cleaning salmon and to eat food a good quarter mile from each night’s camp, but you can’t mask the fact that you’re human from being telegraphed by the evening breeze. There were no trees in which to hang food so we’d put our meager stash into the canisters and anchor the canisters under rocks in the cold shallows of the river, to keep the food temperatures low so that the smell wouldn’t carry much on the air. It seemed to work; I’ve used snow banks in similar ways down in the lower 48, and I don’t believe I’ve ever had my food raided, using such tricks.

      I was not experienced with bears per se back then, but a bear is a wild animal and wild critters in general are no stranger to me. I think we simply have to understand what motivates them, and respect their resourcefulness, and intelligence, and courage. They’ve got plenty of each.

      – Mike

      Reply

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