Pheasant hunters need to be aware they could flush out more than birds in valley fields in Montana this year.
Saturday is the season opener for pheasant hunting, and bear managers note an abundance of both black and grizzly bears are on Montana’s landscape this year, especially in the valleys in western Montana and east from the Rocky Mountain Front. Bear specialists are recommending that all bird hunters, along with archers, carry bear spray with them and know how to use it.
“We had a really good fruit year and the hawthorns did well too. The bears day-bed in those berry patches and shelter belts, and pheasant hunters like to get in there in the heavy cover,” said Stacy Courville, the carnivore management specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “It’s been three years since we had a grizzly bear run-in, but last fall we had to euthanize a female grizzly that was shot in the face with a shotgun at close range. Nobody reported that one.”
In 2016, a pheasant hunter from Missoula was injured after a "surprise encounter" with a sow and with two cubs in dense cover off of Olsen Road, south of the Ninepipe Reservoir on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Courville added that the bears also like to bed down in cornfields, where pheasant hunters with their dogs often walk the rows trying to flush out birds.
“Be bear aware. If you see any signs of a bear, maybe a pheasant isn’t worth it,” Courville said.
Bears currently are in the "hyperphagia" stage as they consume up to 20,000 calories each day before hibernating for the winter.
Jamie Jonkel, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife management specialist based in Missoula, said it’s not just pheasant hunters that need to be aware of the potential for a grizzly encounter in the field.
“Mountain grouse hunters, upland game bird hunters — when you get out of their trucks to creep into primo hunting grounds, in the back of your mind a light should come on saying, ‘I wonder if there’s a grizzly in there feeding on the lovely rose hips, chokecherries or hawthorn berries,’” Jonkel said. “Even waterfowl hunters, the guys that like the potholes or the little sloughs along the Clark Fork River — everyone should be thinking grizzly bears.
“Even fishermen on the rivers and creeks; that little willowy creeks where you can pull out all those trout, you can be walking along the bank and can easily stumble on a mama bear and her cubs bedded down.”
FWP has received reports of a grizzly bear activity in the Lolo Hot Springs area, and is continuing to monitor a young adult radio-collared male nearby that came over from the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. Grizzlies also are active in the Blackfoot, Little Blackfoot, Clearwater and Deer Lodge areas, according to Jonkel and the Missoulabears.org website.
Mike Madel, a bear specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the Rocky Mountain Front, said he probably responds to more pheasant hunter/grizzly bear calls than anyone in the state or region.
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“We have bears in narrow riparian areas that pheasants like to get into … and bears don’t expect people to be disturbing them there,” Madel said. “It’s good forage and the thorny buffalo berries that grow farther east on the Rocky Mountain Front are thick this year. There’s also a bumper crop of chokecherries and the pheasants like to eat those and they’re overlapping the same habitat.”
Madel recalled a “pretty serious hunter” from the Bitterroot who was on the Front and was severely mauled by a bear a few years ago.
“The dog went into the field and there was a bedded-down grizzly bear by Dupuyer Creek and the bear chased the dog and ran right into the hunter,” Madel said. “The bear knocked him over and beat him up pretty seriously.”
Both Madel and Jonkel urged bird hunters, anglers and archers to carry bear spray on their hip belts and be prepared to use it quickly. Madel says the spray has always worked for him as a bear deterrent, which can’t be said for pellets from a shotgun or bullets from a handgun.
He notes that he and his coworkers have dangerous jobs, because they have to capture bears at times. Madel and his coworkers agreed that if one of them gets attacked, bear spray is their deterrent of choice before a firearm.
“We’ve agreed that if attacked, hose me down with bear spray. Don’t try to get off that shot,” Madel said.
Madel adds that it’s hard to kill a grizzly bear, and even more difficult with birdshot.
“It’s much more effective to use bear spray,” Madel said. “We have used it in the wind when I was charged by female grizzly bears. It’s really effective. You don’t have to worry about aiming.
“And you don’t want to use a shotgun if a bear is on your buddy. Bear spray is a lot easier on both your buddy and the bear.”
Madel said every year he gets calls from people wanting to know where they can hunt along the Front without worrying about running into grizzly bears. As the bear population has slowly grown and expanded into historical territories, his answers have shortened.
“Now I’m saying no place, even in an open environment where bears like to get into the low riparian fields and bed down,” Madel said. “Just hunt along the edges. Don’t enter them.”