By Dennis Nottingham

In Montana, bears both black and brown (grizzly) are being encountered on a more frequent basis and are cussed and discussed by many an expert. My 50 years in Alaska hunting and observing bears does not make me an expert, but I do have many experiences.

The problem with the general public is that many people have little knowledge of bears, and this causes several reactions in them including fear, lack of respect, or other inappropriate behavior.

A few brief stories may help to illustrate my point.

A friend of mine enjoyed hunting Sitka blacktail deer on Admiralty Island, Alaska, but was fearful of brown bears. He carried a small caliber .270 rifle and had been told that letting a bear know your presence was good practice. After spotting a large male brown bear across a muskeg meadow, he yelled to alert the bear. The bear immediately charged him, but my friend was lucky and shot the bear at a distance of 15 feet. Later examination of the bear revealed a severe ear infection. A variable such as this can turn that cute furry animal into a killing machine, and you never will know this situation in advance.

Yakutat, Alaska has many brown bears mixed with sportsmen. A sign at one lodge said: “It is important to know the difference between brown bear feces and black bear feces. Brown bear feces smells like pepper spray and contains little bells.”

Avoidance is the preferred method on how some choose to handle bears. For example, I once sent a junior engineer to inspect a pier extending a distance into Cold Bay. He arrived at the airport and then checked into a hotel. With time to kill he walked out onto the pier to get a feel for the job. At dusk he started back, only to run into a brown bear sow with two cubs at the shore end. He avoided contact by waiting out on the pier. As night fell, he did not want to chance bear contact, so he stayed on the pier until first light.

Many people want to hunt bears. While some are prepared and knowledgeable, I have found many to be just the opposite. Lacking is usually knowledge of a bear’s anatomy, the wrong caliber or bullet type, poor shooting ability, and inability to stalk quietly.

Gun experts all have opinions regarding caliber and bullet type. I have had good results using a .338 with a 250 grain nosler bullet; however, it cannot be disputed that if you do not have proper bullet placement, everything else is a moot point. Bear guides have to work with clients of variable shooting skills, particularly in stressful situations.

I once went with a man who had a large caliber elephant gun (.450 Nitro Express) that would surely put any animal down. I carefully explained where to effectively aim to put the bear down as we were near dense alders. As the big bear (830 pounds in the spring) approached to within 60 yards, this dude’s eyes got bigger and bigger. He did stay put, but shot too far back in the lungs and the bear took off for the brush. I caught him in the spine with a .338 and knocked him down. This bear thrashed around in the brush for 20 minutes before it was over. Bears have a relatively low heartbeat, thus shots must either break bones or cause severe internal damage. Can you imagine how far a bear can run in 20 minutes? This is why placement is key.

As I get older, I often wonder why anyone would want to shoot a bear. My dad, from an early Montana pioneer family (1865), taught me “if you shoot it, you eat it.”

Ego is something you find commonly in hunters—wanting to compare sizes of skins and skulls—but tradition probably tops the list as reasons to hunt, as historically families hunted for food, skins, and animal parts made into jewelry and tools such as claws and teeth. Descendants seem to carry this on today. Protection of property is another consideration. One Montana old-timer I knew, while raising sheep, had to kill a number of grizzly bears that killed and ate part of his flock.

Also, protection of one’s own life comes to mind.

Bears are simple animals and relatively easy to hunt, but they can be dangerous given the right conditions. I feel like a piece of bait without a weapon if bears are around, given their unpredictability. Even if you have a weapon, you must be proficient with it, and remember to always be aware.