Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Second on the Food Chain

Hikers venturing into Montana’s backcountry, especially in Glacier National Park, will find themselves second on the food chain. At the very top of that chain are 800-pound grizzly bears.

Spend any time in Glacier and you’re almost guaranteed to see a grizz, especially if you visit the Many Glacier area. We’ve seen several grizzlies and black bears on all three of our visits to Glacier. On our most recent visit we saw a couple of lone grizzlies on separate hikes, and on another, saw a mother grizzly and two cubs early on, and then a group, or family of five grizzlies later that same day. In each of those instances the bears were several hundred feet above us.

However, we did have a couple of much closer encounters towards the end of our trip, which began to spook us a little. On our last day, while returning from Otokomi Lake, we ran into a couple of hikers who told us they had just passed what sounded like a something growling and smelling like a wet dog, which they assumed to be a grizzly that may have been protecting a fresh kill. This freaked us out a little, especially since they were the first people we had seen on the 10.5-mile hike. Although we never saw or heard anything, we were pretty relieved to return back to the trailhead.

The day before that, only 200 yards from the parking lot on our return from Iceberg Lake, a large male black bear crossed the trail less than 30 feet in front of us. Fortunately there was another group of hikers directly behind us, so it wasn’t quite as unnerving as it could’ve been.

The headline story of the trip, however, came about a week before leaving for home. We were hiking along the Gunsight Pass Trail, a trail notorious for lots of tall vegetation, not being well traveled, and passing through excellent bear habitat. Kathy had just yelled out a “hey bear!”, and no more than 30 seconds later, and maybe only 20 feet away from us, we heard a large animal crashing through the undergrowth as it tried to get out of our way. Now it’s possible it could’ve been a moose, but I really don’t think it could’ve moved that fast. Additionally, I think we would’ve been able to see it above the vegetation. More than likely it was a black or grizzly bear foraging for berries just off the side of the trail. Either way, it scared the (insert your own word here) out of us. What has perplexed me since that incident is why the bear didn’t immediately run away after my wife gave that shout out.

Fortunately Glacier does a great job of managing the interaction between humans and bears.

There are roughly 300 grizzlies and 900 black bears within the park. How does Glacier know that? If you’ve ever hiked in Glacier you may have noticed one or two trees with yellow tags, and have barbed wire wrapped around their trunks. Since bears like to use trees to scratch their backs, the barbed wire allows biologists to collect hair samples while bears are scratching their itch, The DNA collected from the samples is then used to estimate bear populations.

To be safe while out on the trail, Glacier highly recommends that hikers make a lot of noise. This includes yelling out “hey bear” every few minutes in order to give bears a heads-up that you’re entering into their territory. Bear bells, by the way, are pretty much useless. We passed several people wearing them, but really couldn’t hear them until they were within only a few yards. This just doesn’t give enough warning, thus increasing the chances of surprising a bear, which, obviously, is dangerous.

Park officials also recommend that hikers carry bear (pepper) spray. One hiker, during a break, had to put his bear spray in his shoe after this squirrel tried to drag it away:

Finally, the park also recommends hiking in groups. Most bear maulings occur when a solo hiker surprises a bear. Hiking in groups, however, increases the amount of noise. Glacier used to recommend hiking in groups of three or more. They’re now saying groups of four or more are safest. Parks Canada recently passed a measure making it mandatory that you travel in groups of four or more while hiking in parts of Banff National Park. One person in the group is also required to carry bear spray. A fine of $25,000 can be imposed on people breaking these laws.

Other things you can do to increase your safety while hiking in Glacier is to partake in ranger led hikes, many of which visit the most popular destinations in the park. You also have a great opportunity of meeting some interesting people from all over the world. For the most part the rangers travel at a pretty good pace, while providing information on the flora, wildlife, history and geology of the area. However, there are some hikes that are painfully slow, and others that attract some very large groups.

We did partake in a few ranger led hikes ourselves, but most of our hikes were alone. Due to the presence of grizzlies, many hikers tend to gravitate towards each other once on the trail. There were several occasions where we hooked up with other couples or groups. Other times we would try to stay in close proximity to another group. Given the situation, most people seem to be real open to this.

The park has also taken steps to help protect backpackers by setting-up separate food preparation areas at all backcountry campsites. Some campsites even have metal bear boxes for backcountry campers to store their food.

When the park experiences “bad bear” activity on any given trail, they’ll close it for several days at a time. Unfortunately this happens to some of the most popular trails on a fairly frequent basis.

I think I conquered my grizzly bear paranoia on this trip, but not my fear. Everyone should have a healthy degree of fear. To not fear a grizzly is to not respect them. And if you don’t respect them you’re eventually going to put yourself in a dangerous situation.


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