In early October, a bird hunter in the Mud Lake area near Bigfork came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. He fired off a shot in self defense, damaging one of the sow's eyes. Biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks captured the bear a few weeks later, and a Kalispell veterinarian removed the eye and stitched up the wound.
The incident underscored an alert issued statewide by FWP just before the opening of the general rifle season Oct. 20: Expect and be prepared to see bears. Mild weather this fall has contributed to keeping black bears and grizzlies more active, the release said, and food is scarce in areas like the Rocky Mountain Front hit by summer drought and wildfires.
FWP region 1 spokesman John Fraley says it's not unusual for hunters in the Flathead to bump into bears. That's why FWP encourages hunters every year to carry bear spray. Check stations are abuzz with reports of bear sightings, Fraley says. While the Flathead Valley did have an abnormally wet summer and food crops were good, he warns that the bear population is dense and bears are still building up calories before winter.
"You put all those hunters out there, and you have a recovered grizzly bear population, you're going to have those encounters," Fraley says. "It's just law of averages."
In Region 2, FWP's Jamie Jonkel notes the bear world is pretty quiet. He's heard of a half-dozen or so hunters who have come into contact with grizzlies, but none have been charged. Black bears have been an even lesser issue. Poor apple crops in the Rattlesnake haven't offered bears the "gravy train" they normally do, Jonkel says.
The lack of encounters hasn't stopped Jonkel from taking precautions. Last year, FWP handed out 100 free canisters of bear spray to hunters whose names were drawn for weekly access to two block management areas up the Blackfoot, Shanley Creek and Dick Creek. Jonkel says the agency is on par to pass out a similar number of canisters again this fall.