Are You Ready for The Grizzly?
September 16, 2019 will be a day three out-of-state bowhunters looking for elk in Southwest Montana will never forget. Two separate incidents of attack occurred less than 12 hours apart in a similar area of the Gravelly Mountains - the drainage of Cottonwood Creek.
At about 7:30 AM, two bowhunters from New Mexico were heading south from Cottonwood Creek when they were charged by a grizzly. The men were hiking single-file up a hill when suddenly the bear stood up from the grass about 20 feet in front of them and charged. The men endured brief mayhem on the trail as the bear inflicted a bad gash to the back of one man’s head and groin injuries to the other. The lucky souls were able to use bear spray to repel the bear, hike to their rig and drive to Ennis for medical treatment. They caused no small stir when they walked into Shedhorn Sports store in hospital gowns due to their clothes being cut off in the hospital.
Later the same day, two Washington hunters ventured into the same general area about 6:30 PM. These men were heading north toward Cottonwood Creek. Biologists by profession, both were familiar with bears and bear behavior and longtime hunters. They were in thick timber of lodgepole pine and spruce, patches of brush and blowdowns.
The biologists crossed a small bench and heard an animal jump up to their left, within 20 yards. At first, they thought it was an elk. Turning to look, they saw the grizzly bear charging them, woofing and breathing heavily. One man ran and jumped downhill. The other attempted to escape uphill, but the bear grabbed him by the thigh, shaking him like a Jack Russell would a rat. The hunter screamed, summoning his partner with a drawn Glock 43, 9 mm pistol to his rescue.
The bear let go of his leg and got on his back, trying to bite his head. His thumbs were in the bear’s mouth, trying to hold its teeth away from his head. The hunter with the gun shot the bear in the hind end, believing he had no other shot option. To take the time for a side shot may have meant a broken neck for his partner. His quick, moxie-rich action saved his friend as the bear leapt away from his victim and slipped into thick brush only five feet away.
Once in the brush, the bear continued to mill about, walking toward them. They could hear but not see the grizzly. Both men yelled and fired their 9 mm pistols toward the bear’s sounds, responding to three charges toward them. Once the sounds of the bear’s retreat faded, the uninjured hunter checked over his friend’s injuries and provided first aid.
Several other instances of grizzly attacks have occurred in Montana and Wyoming. News of such attacks leaves bowhunters and hikers in shock and begging the question, “Am I prepared to encounter a grizzly?”
Todd Orr, a trail engineer with the Custer Gallatin National Forest of Montana and owner of Skyblade Knives, hit the trail in darkness, scouting solo for elk through Bear Creek drainage. He made deliberate sounds to avoid a surprise bear encounter. It was shortly after daylight when he noticed a grizzly and her cubs about 70 yards away. Armed with bear spray and a Rock Island Armory 1911 scoped pistol in a shoulder holster, he was alarmed and relieved when the sow and cubs left. Orr continued his trek. A sound over his shoulder caused him to look in time to see the sow charging. Orr turned while pulling his spray and gave her a full shot of the orange, incapacitating mist at about 25 feet. She ran through the spray, knocking him to the ground. Orr went face-down into the dirt, curled into a ball and wrapped his arms around the back of his neck for protection while the sow bit him profusely about the head and upper body. He described the force of each bite like “a sledge hammer with teeth.” The sow stopped for a few seconds and then resumed biting. After a couple of minutes, she left.
Orr carefully picked himself up and was happy to be alive and able to walk. He headed for his truck about three miles from his location. After a few minutes on the trail, Orr heard a sound and turned to see the grizzly again coming for him. He went to the ground and used his damaged arms to protect his neck. Orr kept tight against the ground to protect his face and eyes. He heard his bone crunch as the bear bit through his forearm. The piercing pain made him flinch and gasp which triggered a fury of bites to his shoulder and upper back. The sow suddenly stopped and stood on top of him, smashing his chest into the ground and forehead into the dirt. He didn’t move and thought about the strong possibility that “this could be it.” Suddenly, she was gone. Amazingly, Orr was able to get himself back to his truck. He survived.
In September 2017, Tom Sommer, age 57, and his partner came upon a Montana grizzly. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the grizz was on an elk carcass. They attempted to scare off the bear by yelling and waving, but the bear charged the duo. Tom's partner pulled his bear spray. The bear side-stepped the spray and came right at Tom, knocking him to the ground. The bear was on Tom and had his head in its mouth, chomping him like Bazooka gum. Tom pulled his .44 magnum and was going to shoot the bear when the bear swatted his arm down. Tom's partner, fearless in response, sprayed the bear point-blank in the face, which drove the bear off. Tom was also impacted by the spray. The end result of this 25-second grizzly nightmare was severe thigh and skull injuries. Tom required 90 stitches and experienced two skull fractures. Fortunately, he recovered well from this ordeal.
The most difficult grizzly incident for me to review happened in Wyoming on September 14, 2018. Corey Chubon, a crossbow hunter from Florida, was hunting with guide Mark Uptain of Martin Outfitters. Chubon shot a bull elk. The duo couldn’t find the elk and returned the next day in pursuit. They followed the blood trail into a patch of timber and found the undisturbed carcass.
With temperature climbing, Uptain removed his shirt and shoulder holster containing his Glock 10 mm pistol. These items were a few yards uphill from the elk, and Uptain had a canister of bear spray slung from a hip holster on his left side. Chubon had bear spray but it was in his pack, not on his person.
Uptain was processing the carcass when they heard the sound of rock tumbling. Looking toward the sound they saw two grizzly bears running full speed at them. Uptain started waving his arms and yelling before the sow struck and bit him like a chew toy. Its grown cub did not join the attack. Chubon retrieved Uptain’s Glock but didn’t know how it operated. He ejected the magazine trying to disengage the safety.
The sow left Uptain and went to attack Chubon. After a brief tussle, the grizzly let go of Chubon and went back to attacking Uptain. Chubon made the decision to run, saving himself from further affliction. Uptain used his bear spray to repel the bear but his injuries were too severe. He suffered 38 puncture wounds and 14 tearing wounds with the worst to his upper thighs on both legs. He died on Terrace Mountain from massive blood loss, leaving behind a wife and five children.
In 1998, Bob Moser and I were hunting the Bear Creek drainage in Montana. He and I separated, heading up Slide Rock Mountain, looking and calling for elk. I found him at about 10:00 AM, sitting at the base of a fir tree, looking a bit pale. I asked him, “You OK?” He replied that he had called in a grizzly bear. At first, I didn’t believe him, thinking he’d seen a large black bear. He described the incident saying that he was making estrous screams using his mouth reed for about 10 minutes. He heard a limb snap and looked in the direction of the sound to see a large boar grizzly approaching, about 30 yards away.
Bob stood up and drew his .38 special pistol, waved his arms high and told the bear to scram. It helped, I’m sure, that Bob is 6’5” and about 250 lbs. He did not have any bear spray. To his relief, the bear turned and sauntered off into the forest.
By now you may be asking, “Why hunt in grizzly country and subject yourself to these risks?” Some would quickly say nay and choose to hunt in areas not occupied by formidable beasts. For me, the grizzly adds to the thrill of hunting, knowing a hunter could be hunted.
The key to survival in any such intense, adrenaline-rushed situation is to be prepared - both mentally and physically. What gives us our best odds of survival? Conscious decision making fueled by wisdom, use of common sense and preparation increase our survival odds. Let’s turn now to preparation for hunting in grizzly country, learning from incidents we have reviewed.
Grizzly Encounter Preparation
- Always hunt with a partner or two in your group. I enjoy solo hunting but at 67, my days for that are over. My Montana partners in 2019 were Scott Weidow and his son Dalton from Pinesdale. These are solid, gritty individuals; not likely to cower or run at the sight of a grizzly or save themselves at my expense. Strong mental toughness in your partner is necessary if you intend to survive an attack.
- Have both a pistol and bear spray within easy reach. Never be without your weapons for any reason. The grizzly could appear at any time, so keep your deterrent ready without exception. Tons of research shows spray to be the most reliable form of bear defense. However, we have seen that it is not foolproof. If you choose spray, practice drawing it and pulling off the safety. Get quick at doing this and make sure that your partners are equally adept.
- Choose proper firepower and have good shooting skills. The minimal but go-to firearm for bears today is the 10 mm semi-auto pistol. I have a Glock 20 and my partners carry similar firepower. A 9 mm is not suitable so avoid taking this self-defense caliber. For bear, you need a serious weapon capable of inflicting furious vengeance and wrath. A good 10 mm will deliver more punch than a .357 magnum but less than a .44 magnum. The Glock Model 20 is at the apex for bear guns in my opinion because of its 15-round magazine and ability to rapid fire. It’s like having a Marine squad in your hand. Pair this with Buffalo Bore ammo and it’s hammer time for the charging grizzly.
- Make a game plan if a bear were to charge and do several drills with your partners. Talk about various scenarios and who would do what in each. The importance of practice cannot be overemphasized. A bear is seen 40 yards in front of you. What do you do? You hear a crashing sound of brush breaking with something coming toward you from any direction. What do you do? Each party member should have a role that you strategize ahead of an incident. This may seem like overkill (no pun intended), but it’s not. Such practice in drills could save you from serious injury. It most assuredly will remove hesitation from your response to the bear. In my research on bear attacks, one thing is universal: Bears move fast! Seconds gained through familiarity can mean the difference between life and death.
- Get some exposure to a large bear and what you’re likely to face in the mountains. What does a 400-plus pound grizzly look like in a charge? The best movie to reflect this is The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio which depicts the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass. In a word, the bear attack scene was awesome. YouTube also has several engaging grizzly bear videos. Try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrMmQHSA6Cs This Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks video shows the capture and release of large bears. It will rock you when you see the size of these beasts!
- Have a first aid kit with some gauze, tape, QuikClot or another blood-clotting agent and some Betadine in your pack. Only one person needs this so determine which of you that will be. Clean game bags can be used as gauze dressing. Field first aid becomes much easier with proper supplies.
- Expect and prepare for a second attack! We can see in Todd Orr’s case that a bear can and may return to attack. Be ready!
- When calling elk, expect that you may pull in a grizzly. Have your partner looking in a direction different from you. An early alert can give you more preparation time. Time is money when a bear is charging.
- Never try to scare off a bear on a carcass! That move is foolish and likely to get your name in the news. Turn and go the other direction.
Each hunter must decide which is his/her best defense against a marauding grizzly. While the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, along with the forest service and other agencies sing the praises of the bear spray, in several instances bear spray has been less than effective. Regardless of political slant, decide ahead of an encounter your go-to bear medicine, practice with it and know your game plan to survive an attack.
I’m going for my 10 mm Glock at the sound of crashing brush. I want the gun on my chest in a Gunfighters INC Kenai or Diamond D holster, not in a pack or a difficult-to-reach spot. In a fluid motion, I will draw and point toward the sound, ready to do business if I see a bear. As said earlier, seconds are precious in such circumstances so proper gun safety and handling skills are paramount, along with your moxie. Another partner may elect to go for spray, depending on the wind and level of comfort. If there is a third party, that person can complement the others’ choices with one of their own. Make these decisions ahead of an incident to remove hesitation. We all start yelling, spraying and/or firing, using good judgment and level headedness. Scared, yes; hesitant, no! In such situations, I can know I am ready for the grizzly.
By P. Garrett Leeberg