By Larry Case
It has been an historic past few weeks for hunters and grizzly bears in Wyoming. Grizzly bears have been returned to the protection of the Endangered Species Act by order of a Federal District Judge and a long-awaited hunt for the bears has been canceled. Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department had scheduled a grizzly hunt for September 15 through November 15 with a maximum of 24 bears to be taken in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Wildlife Biologists estimate there are over 700 grizzlies in this area.
There was a myriad of other regulations governing this hunt to include only two grizzly hunters could be afield at the same time, only two female bears could be taken in the entire hunt and when two females are taken, all grizzly hunting would end.
A total of ten male bears could be taken and when that happens all hunting would end for the season. So where did that 24 maximum number come from? You tell me. I read the now defunct regulations several times and I still don’t understand it, but math was never my best subject.
All of this doesn’t matter now anyway because District Judge Dana Christensen, after delaying the grizzly hunt twice, struck down the de-listing of the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This returned the bears to the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
It would be easy as a hunter to argue with righteous indignation about how the judge should not have canceled this hunt. Like many things in life however, this is a complicated issue. In his ruling, the judge stated that this decision was not based on the ethics of hunting or trying to solve problems with interactions between bears and the public. Instead, the court ruled on whether the USFWS had legally de-listed grizzlys.
While it is easy to get into the weeds when discussing any lawsuit or legal matter, the judge ruled for the plaintiffs in this case on two major points. First, the ruling said that the USFWS service had not taken into account how de-listing the bears in the Yellowstone area would affect grizzlies in other parts of the lower 48. In other words, are the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem going to be harmed if they’re not allowed to mix with grizzlies in other areas? (I don’t know, and I don’t think the judge does either.)
The ruling also stated the USFWS acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in the de-listing process, mainly in the area of how the present grizzly population was counted. “The court does not question the commitment of the Service and each of the states to continued grizzly recovery; however, the general good intentions of the parties do not override the ESA’s mandate that decisions be made in accordance with the best available science,” the judge wrote.
I am not going to question whether state and federal wildlife biologists used the best available science, but that’s just me.
The ruling is what it is, and for the time being there will be no legal grizzly hunts in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. What we will have is more grizzly interaction — much of it bad — with hunters, hikers, ranchers and most anyone who trods the ground in grizzly country (and that country is growing).
The day before the grizzly hunt was to have started, a guide and two elk hunters were attacked by two grizzlies in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming. One hunter was injured and the guide was killed. Wyoming Game and Fish personnel investigated and killed both bears involved.
Whatever your politics, and wherever you might stand on the recent court ruling, it occurs to me if you plan to visit bear country you may not want to end up facing 500 hundred pounds of teeth, fur and claws without some protection.
Last summer I spent a week with some Alaska Department Natural Resources (DNR) folks as they trained for this very thing; how to protect yourself when you meet up with a bear that may be having a bad day.
Long ago Robert Ruark in his hunting classic Use Enough Gun cautioned us on being adequately armed for the game you’re hunting. In other words don’t be tracking Cape buffalo and elephants carrying a .220 Swift. Here is a CliffsNotes version of what I leaned from the Alaskans on guns for bear protection:
Shotguns are it. More Alaskans carry a 12 gauge pump shotgun than anything else. Tactical models are the most popular, with short barrels and extended magazines. Shotguns are versatile, can shoot different types ammo and are considered very reliable.
A 12 gauge slug is devastating at close range and close range is what this is all about. Most bear charges start at 50 yards or less and a brown bear can be on you from that distance in three seconds. A Remington 870 pump gun was the shotgun most seen with Mossberg 500’s and 590 variations a close second. Rifle sights or a ghost ring set-up is better than a single bead on the barrel.
Big Rifles. Shotguns are popular but many Alaskans carry rifles for bear protection. Steve Nelson, the instructor who taught the bear protection class I attended recommended “anything .30/06 and up” but admitted he could often be found packing a .375 H&H bolt gun or a .45/70 Marlin Guide Gun. Training with your chosen rifle, (or any firearm) and learning to operate the weapon under stressful conditions cannot be emphasized enough.
Big Bore Handguns. Carrying any firearm can be a real pain in the derriere. Handguns lighten the load and with a good holster system they bring the huge advantage of being on your person and readily available when things get real.
Any large bore handgun is going to be better than no gun, but the DNR guys and girls I was around liked the Ruger Super Blackhawk Alaskan Model (2 ½” barrel) in .454 Casull. The .454 is real beast and if you can hit anything with it will probably solve many of your problems. Stepping down to a little easier-to-handle .44 Magnum was thought to be perfectly acceptable among those I met who work the bush in Alaska.
Debating issues to the point of tedium, like whether the grizzly should be hunted in the lower 48, seems to be in vogue right now. Rest assured that in any confrontations with a grizzly bear there will not be much time for debate. I would suggest that you be prepared and use enough gun.
Larry Case was a Conservation Officer and Natural Resources Police Officer for 36 years, worked as a rifle, pistol, and shotgun instructor and retired with the rank of District Captain. He is a lifelong hunter and shooter and a graduate of the Gunsite Academy Defensive Shotgun Class.