There are valuable lessons for horsemen in the aftermath of a deadly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park.
In July 2010, Kipp Saile of Rockin’ HK Outfitters lead six riders on the Pebble Creek Trail in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. The trail scissored through the trees, paralleling the creek, and then entered a clearing where Kipp saw an unusual sight: a grizzly sow with three cubs. Kipp knew that grizzlies often give birth to twins – dual offspring are nature’s way of ensuring the species’ survival. Yet, in 18 years of guiding the Yellowstone backcountry, Kipp had never seen or heard of a grizzly with triplets. He took out his cell phone and snapped a picture just as the bear family scampered into the woods. When the coast was clear, Kipp resumed the ride.
Three days later, Kipp was back in the saddle, this time leading a packtrip along Snake River on the southern boundary of Yellowstone. He met park ranger Michael Curtis on the trail, who told him some incredible news. On July 28, just two days after Kipp had seen the sow and three cubs, the grizzly family had night-raided the Soda Butte Campground on the Gallatin National Forest, just outside the park. The bears tore through tents, killing and eating one man, and severely injuring two others campers
The news astonished Kipp. To think, his group had camped in close proximity to the bears. A twist of fate, and the bears could’ve attacked their camp.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials trapped the grizzlies, placed the cubs in a zoo facility, euthanized the sow and conducted an autopsy. The Forest Service reported that the sow was ten years old, and that she suffered from malnutrition owing to the demands of raising three cubs, and the effects of parasites in her digestive system. She’d never attacked humans before – not even tipped over a garbage can – and yet something, maybe hunger, had driven her to the point of attack.
The Soda Butte Campground attack was a harbinger of things to come in Greater Yellowstone (a term used to describe the land in and around the national park, including parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming). In September, in separate incidents, two archery hunters were attacked by grizzlies in the Gravely Mountains, outside the Western boundary of Yellowstone. In May, two hikers were attacked in the Gallatin Mountains, just north of the park. And this July, a man was attacked and killed while hiking in Yellowstone.
The attacks had varying circumstances, but shared one thing in common: the victims were on foot. The good news is that bears view man and horse as more than they can handle. A typical horseback encounter is like what Ivan Goepford, a Montana wrangler, experienced when caught a grizzly by surprise while leading a trail ride.
“We came around a hillside, and there they were,” Goepford recalls. “The sow stood up on her hind feet, like you see in the movies, and sniffed the air. I told my riders, ‘Okay, let’s just turn our horses around a quietly ride away.’”
They did, and the grizzly went on about its business.
On the trail, horsemen may have less to worry about than hikers, but in camp the dangers are equal.
Once a bear wanders into a camp and discovers human food left out by careless campers, it’ll return time and again, increasing the odds of a violent encounter. It’s impossible to know if a campsite is frequented by problem bears.
There are some rules of thumb that’ll increase your odds of selecting a bear-safe camp. Avoid campsites located along rivers, lakes or other geographic feature making it a travel corridor for wildlife. If a camp is equipped with a bear pole or bear-proof storage bins (it should, in bear country), consider if they look well used. If not, it could mean that previous campers didn’t stow their food correctly, increasing the chances of a bear lurking in the woods to catch a whiff of what you cook for dinner.
Bear poles are a horseman’s best friend in bear country. Montana-based horseman and bear biologist Steve Primm has installed dozens of bear poles throughout Greater Yellowstone over the years. He puts hundreds of miles on his gelding Squire every year, conducting bear research, public outreach and building and repairing his inventory of backcountry bear poles.
He explains that in order to use a pole correctly, throw a rope over the center of the cross pole, load your foodstuffs into a bag, and hoist it 20 feet into the air. It’s a good idea to stow pots and dishes, tablecloths, even toothpaste – anything that smells like food. Horsemen should also hang odorous stock items like sweet feed, nosebags, even saddle blankets from a bear pole. You’d be surprised what smells good to a hungry bear. Also, keep in mind that bears are expert climbers, so ensure that a bear can’t climb an adjacent tree to access what’s hanging from your bear pole.
With big game hunting season kicking-off in most Western states this month, there’s an added complication in bear country: the risk of encountering bears scavenging for meat. Bears are omnivores, meaning they eat plants and meat – the prior making up the bulk of their diet. Contrary to their man-killer reputation, bears get most of their meat by scavenging off the remains of animals killed by other predators, like wolves and mountain lions. During hunting season, human-killed big game animals make the list.
“Bears follow the sound of a riffle shot like it were a dinner bell,” says Warren Johnson, of Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters, a Greater Yellowstone hunting outfit. “I’ve seen grizzlies arrive fifteen minutes after the rifle shot; it depends how far away they are in the moment. You have to pack out your meat quickly.”
Most hunters bone-out their kills – meaning they butcher the animal in the field, leaving the remains, bones and entrails, in the mountains. Johnson points out that this “food reward” affects bear behavior.
“That’s the ruination of a lot of grizzly bears because they learn bad habits that will either get the grizzly shot and killed, or else an increase in the number of mauled hunters. It’s a bad practice,” he says.
Johnson advocates that hunters pack out their entire carcass, bones and meat, leaving only the entrails behind in the backcountry. He urges hunters to use bear poles when stowing their meat in a backcountry camp.
To steer clear of a scavenging bear, avoid areas frequented by hunters. Pay attention to signals, like the sound of gunshots, the smell of a dead animal, and the presence of scavenger birds, any of which could indicate the presence of a bear.
If the unthinkable occurs, and you encounter a bear on the trail, remember that your horse is good as bear repellent. Keep your cool, keep your horse squared to the bear and talk to animal. Likely, the bear will retreat, and you can each go on your way.