Glass Grassy Slopes Near Pockets of Cover for Spring Bear

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Timbered valleys split the grassy slopes into long green fingers stretching down toward the river. Matt lifted the ten power binoculars to his eyes. A gust of wind blew his blond hair back and he could smell the wildflowers on the warm breeze.

For weeks he'd been searching these slopes for a legal bear. Now, with only a day before the end of the 1997 spring bear season, warmer weather had the wildflowers in bloom and the elk out of the river bottoms in search of food.

Moving to a different vantage point, he sat, put the glasses to his eyes and immediately saw a bear, feeding along the bottom of the drainage.

Now not all black bears are black. Some areas have bears in many different color phases. This one Matt spotted was all blond. Checking the wind, Matt stood up and glanced back at his partner, further up the slope. Jeremy could see five bears on the opposite slope. One of which was a sow they had spotted earlier in the season. She had black legs, a blond body and a red head. With her were two cinnamon colored cubs and one black cub. The fifth bear was a big blond boar with black legs. Matt's bear was within 800 yards and the other bears were a mile and a half away.

Moving on a course to intersect with the path the first bear was taking, Matt couldn't find it when he reached the bottom of the slope. From where he sat he could see occasional glimpses of the big boar as he made his way through the timber downhill and for almost four hours he watched the sow and cubs. Laying on her back, the old lady picked up rocks in her paws and shook them to catch the grubs and worms beneath. The cubs were running and playing all around her and should they get too close she'd swat them down the hill.

He was about to head back when he saw the first bear again, just below him, two hundred yards away, flipping rocks over and prospecting for grubs. Laying down, Matt settled the rifle into his shoulder and found the bear in his crosshairs.

Spring bear hunts are controlled by a lottery system that limits hunters in each of the open units. Bag limit is one bear, except that it is unlawful to take cubs less than a year old, or sows with cubs.

The hunts begin in April and run through May and June. The bears are emerging from winter dens at this time and are feeding primarily on grass, bugs and grubs to get their digestive juices flowing again.

As the foliage in the river bottoms dries out, the bears will climb higher in search of succulent grass. This brings them out into the open on green sunlit slopes where they will graze for hours, eating grass and turning over rocks in their search for grubs.

Matt says that if you don't have good optics you might as well stay home. He starts with ten power binoculars to scan the south facing slopes. Once a bear is spotted with the binoculars, Matt will switch to a spotting scope with a much higher magnification to help him determine if the bear is worth pursuing. 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 the head and look rangy, its legs appearing longer in proportion.

Usually, when you locate a bear this way, it will be on the other side of a drainage. It may be a mile or more away when first seen so the hunter will have to move in close for a good shot to be taken. Within two hundred yards for a rifle, under forty for a good shot with a bow. It will probably mean crossing a creek or river at the bottom and it may take hours to reach the spot where the bear was first seen. That bear could be long gone by the time you get there. Constantly moving while he feeds, a big bruin can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, but will probably stay in the same general area all day.

Hunters are provided with a tooth envelope and successful hunters are requested to send in a premolar tooth from the harvested bear. The tooth is analyzed and data is used to monitor populations for management purposes. Hunters will be notified of the age of the bear when laboratory analysis is completed. Additionally, the ODFW is seeking help in obtaining black bear reproductive tracts. 30% of harvested black bears are females. An ODFW district wildlife biologist can provide a reproductive tract collection kit and instructions to interested hunters.

If you didn't apply for and purchase a tag already, you're going to have to wait until next year. But it's a great time to be in the high country in April when the western anenome and cusick's paintbrush is in bloom. In May you can expect canby's lovage and not long after that yellow columbine, mountain buttercup and fireweed. You'll probably see elk and maybe a few turkeys. The deer will be shedding their gray winter coats for the red-brown of summer.

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