Living with Bears

By: Tim Murphy 

The Northern Rockies are arguably one of the most spectacular places to explore on the planet.  The expansive prairie lands extend out of the Great Plains and collide with the mountains in a region that extends essentially from Yellowstone Park well into Alberta and British Columbia.  Portions of this region represent the most ecologically diverse lands in North America.  Hall and Hall has played a role in selling lands throughout this region that include places like Strawberry Creek Ranch, Dancing Wind Ranch, Teton Diablo and others that are directly connected to the Greater Yellowstone and Glacier Park Ecosystems.  It is here where America’s top carnivore resides alongside humans.

The grizzly bear is a majestic animal and commands respect.  For those of us living in Montana, Wyoming and parts of Idaho, it is our equivalent of swimming with sharks.  Simply stated; you have to be prepared before you wander into the woods.  Living with bears isn’t a fearful thing, rather it includes understanding, admiration and preparedness.  However, each year a small percentage of the human encounters with bears results in an attack which can lead to a mauling or worse, death.

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Surprisingly, the vast majority of people who travel through the backcountry have little preparation for an encounter.  Sure, many choose to carry bear spray (a deployable canister of essentially mace), perhaps carry a weapon, and take other precautions such as wearing bells.  But a high percentage of people have never actually discharged a canister of spray to understand its effective range or how it reacts with wind.  I doubt most have ever had formal training on shooting a pistol or possess an ability to discharge the weapon with speed or accuracy.  There is also the question of what is the right weapon to carry, where to carry it and what is an adequate caliber and load.

You certainly hear a lot of opinions on this subject, mostly by people who think they know.  The reality is, it’s easy to forget what people tell you and what they do preach is largely not good advice.  When a bear decides to charge, it can cover 40 yards in 2.5 seconds and with adult males reaching 600-800 pounds, there is little you can do to defend yourself once it takes you to the ground.  It’s best to have strategized and practiced a game plan prior to a worst-case scenario.  With this in mind, Chris Forrest, a retired Navy Seal and self-defense instructor, decided to teach an ongoing 2-day course to help people develop a proactive way to defend themselves against an attack.

Chris instructs this class through a company he owns called Tactic.  The course is not designed solely to teach someone how to kill a bear.  In fact, that is the last thing anyone would or should want to do to such an incredible creature.  But if your life is dependent on it, this class will provide you with the reactionary tools to mitigate the situation.  It also will enlighten students to bear behavior, agility and cunningness.

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The first day of class is all about weapons training.  For us, it was a complete A-Z course on safety and shooting instruction and included men and women who were complete novices to shooting a pistol.  Three hours of indoor classroom training, and 300+ rounds of outdoor range shooting later, all participants were safely, confidently and accurately handling their firearms.

Day two began at a property north of Bozeman where wild animals are kept and trained for the movie industry.  It was here the class was able to experience what it feels like to stand next to an 850-pound male grizzly bear named Adam.  Despite the fact that he is a total sucker for Girl Scout cookies, and loved to have his belly rubbed, the fact that the trainers carried weapons was a reminder that this is still a very dangerous animal.  With the bear standing mere feet away with no cage between us, the feeling was a little uneasy.  On command, this bear could act aggressive, run at full speed, and display his athleticism.  We learned about aggressive posturing and trivial things such as their ability to climb a tree as fast as they can run on the ground dispelling the myth about climbing a tree to escape an attack.

Todd Orr, a Montana native who grew up in Ennis and has spent the last 20+ years working in Montana’s backcountry for the USFS, was also present.  Todd was mauled twice by the same bear last fall and the YouTube video he posted to his friends recounting the event went completely viral.  Todd is an exceptionally seasoned woodsman and has had many encounters with bears over the years.  Todd recited his story as we stood near Adam the bear.  Todd elected to remain in the back of the truck during our discussion and you could completely understand his sense of fear and respect of the creature that stood in front of us.  As experienced as Todd is, he was still not prepared for what happened last fall.  Despite a full discharge of spray as the female bear barreled towards him, it was not enough to deter the mauling.  This is not to say that bear spray is not a good deterrent; it is, but in this incident it proved to be somewhat ineffective.  Todd’s weapon remained holstered and was eventually ripped away from his body.  All Todd could do was remain in a balled-up position protecting his neck with his back to the bear, and pray that she would stop chewing on him and return to her cubs that she had cached over the hill.  Todd was lucky, and to do it again he would have had his weapon and spray in a ready position the first time he saw the sow with her cubs.  He had just seconds to react, and the remainder of the time he had to just keep his ground game together trying to remain silent and still while protecting his vitals.  Hearing this story, complete with emotion, while standing next to a very large carnivore, was gripping to say the least.

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The balance of the course was spent back at the range where we practiced deploying and discharging inert cans of bear spray at moving and active targets.  Where to carry the spray was important, and realizing that you will likely only have time to discharge it from a holstered position was an epiphany.  We then moved back into pistol training putting another 200 rounds through our weapons.  At this point the class was drawing, aiming and firing with precision.  The final challenge was to test our abilities on a target that moves towards the shooter covering the distance it spans in roughly 1.5 seconds.  There, the class was tasked to spray on the first assault, and shoot on the second.  It was then when the realities set in of what was going to work for the individuals.  Revolver versus semi-automatic, carrying spray on the left belt, right belt, or chest.  Regardless of what your personal preference is for defending yourself, the end result was that all 13 students in the class were able to do so effectively in under two seconds.  In all cases, we walked away feeling confident that we were as prepared as we could possibly be, and more so than perhaps 95% of the people who recreate and live with an expanding population of this incredible animal.  Like wearing a seatbelt, you use it and hope it never has to save your life.  To me, this was a class that anyone who spends time outdoors in the Northern Rockies would benefit from.

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Photos from the class (photo credit Fred Brault).

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