For Spring Bear – Follow the Feed
By Gary Lewis
Sometime in March or April, when the sun pushes back the clouds, when the grasses green and the buttercups bloom, Oregon's black bears emerge from their long winter sleep.
Hungry bruins head straight for the river valleys early in the spring, taking advantage of succulent forage below the snowline. Grasses, grubs, flowers, and the tender shoots of smaller trees and shrubs are the target as the bears get their digestive juices flowing again.
As the foliage in the river bottoms dries out, the bears will climb higher in search of goodies. This brings them into the open on green sunlit slopes where they may graze for hours, eating grass and turning over rocks in their search for insects and larvae.
Oregon's bear population is thought to be close to 30,000 animals, spread over approximately 40,000 square miles of habitat. Spring hunts are controlled by a lottery system that limits hunters in each of the open units. Bag limit in the spring is one bear, except that it is unlawful to take cubs less than a year old, or sows with cubs.
Want to know which areas of southwest Oregon harbor the most bruins? Take a look at the 2006 Oregon Big Game Regulations. Spring hunts, beginning in April and May, are used to control bear numbers in areas where bear damage to property is high. For 2006, tag numbers have been increased. This year, 6778 tags are up for grabs.
Some of the best hunting can be found west of the Cascades. From Eugene to Florence and Roseburg south and west to Gold Beach, southwest Oregon is home to more bears than most people realize. But don't forget about the northwest Cascades either, or the north coast.
Hunter success in the northwest spring hunts (Wilson-Trask and Alsea-Stott Mt) averaged 5% in recent years. Because of the dense cover, many hunters walk mountain roads in the early evening to take up a stand downwind of a clearcut or a meadow, watching and waiting until a bear is spotted.
In much of western Oregon, openings are small and hard to find. The best bet is to find public access, private timberland areas closed to motor vehicles and walk the logging roads between clearcuts. Pay special attention to open areas. Another way to find success is by gaining permission on farmland, and watching the edge of the timber for bears to come out to feed.
Black bear droppings are shaped like an apple fritter, though not as tasty. They will contain hints at where to find the bear. The content of fresh droppings may reveal that a bear was eating grass, or finding grubs in rotten logs and stumps. These clues may lead you to a feeding area.
With 2750 available tags, the Southwest Oregon spring bear hunt, made up of the Siuslaw, Tioga, Melrose, Dixon, Sixes, Powers, Evans Creek, Chetco, Applegate and Rogue units, is the easiest to draw. With high bear populations and more openings in the timber, hunter success has averaged 7% in recent years.
Early in the season, hunting the stream bottoms can pay off with a look at a bear. Later in the spring, go to the high country to find animals, watching grassy slopes with binoculars or walking old logging roads.
OPTICS FOR OMNIVORES
Start with 8-power binoculars to scan grassy slopes. If you've located a good area and have found fresh tracks and other sign, be patient. If all the ingredients are there, the bear probably is too. Just stay put, your bear could just be bedded in the grass. You won't see him until he begins feeding again.
Once a bear is spotted, switch to a spotting scope. A good-sized bear will appear to have smaller ears and short legs and walk with a waddle. Conversely, a smaller bear has larger ears in proportion to its head and looks rangy, its legs appearing longer in proportion to its body.
Bears have poor eyesight but make up for it with good hearing and a superb sense of smell. To be successful on a bear hunt, you must pay attention to the wind, testing it frequently to make sure any bears ahead are not being forewarned of your approach.
FOLLOW THE FEED
If you're going to put a spring hunt on the calendar, plan your trip for later in the season. After the rains stop and the green-up begins in earnest, bears become more active. Follow the feed, keep your face in the wind and you'll find the bears.
To narrow down your search, look for three- to five-year-old isolated clearcuts. Find a clearcut with a creek drainage in it. In the bottom, you'll find plenty of cover. Walk in or use a bicycle to cover ground fast. Bears often use the roads behind locked gates as travel corridors.
Look for tracks along the road and at likely crossing points. Then, step off the road and follow skidder trails and overgrown roads left by long-ago logging operations. Grass, willows, and alders are the first to grow in such places. A bear can find a lot of feed on the new growth. Here, off the beaten path, watch for ‘bear tunnels' that lead to swamps and berry patches. Walk quietly, stopping to listen for long periods of time. Bear make a lot of noise when they're on the feed, pulling down brush and nibbling on the tops.
In the first few weeks out of hibernation, bears will focus on new green grass to replenish digestive juices in their stomachs. Just because bears are focused on grass, though, doesn't mean that they won't eat meat. As snows recede and reveal winter-killed deer or elk, the smells wafting with the wind, may bring in a bruin.
Similarly, a call may bring a bear on the run. In some areas, bear are habituated to killing deer and elk calves. A fawn distress call can turn the balance in your favor. When calling bears, set up downwind of your target area. Work the call with almost constant sound for at least 45 minutes to an hour.
Down in the creek bottom, watch for patches of skunk cabbage. When the skunk cabbage blooms, it will produce a yellow stalk that resembles an ear of corn. When the ‘corn' is ripe, watch the area closely.
Another food source that bears focus on in the spring are the tops of young trees. This is another reason why old clearcuts can pay off with a look at a bear. Find a re-prod area, where seedlings have been planted to replace harvested timber. Such a spot can produce bear sightings for several years, until the trees are grown.
At this time of year, bears will bed in old slash piles left from logging operations or may dig a den in the cover of a fallen tree or in the root wad. On cool days, a bear may bed on an open slope, soaking up the sunlight.
Even though spring bear hunting is growing in popularity, there are still many places where a person can spend all day on a mountainside and never see another hunter. It is a time when you can watch the flowers bloom and the hawks riding the thermals and see deer, elk and wild turkeys feeding in the meadows. And, if you look long enough, you might even see a big black bear, fresh from hibernation, foraging in a grassy meadow in the warm spring air.
And don't forget the spot where you found your spring bear. Bears, especially the bigger boars, are territorial. Count on it, another bruin will move in and replace the last one before the fall hunt starts.