Over the past few decades through protection and intervention, the number of big game predators, including bears, wolves and mountain lions has increased across the western United States. Grizzlies were put under protection orders and their population has grown along with their home range. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and, now, are spreading throughout the western states and even moving into states like Colorado as of 2020.
Predators are a very controversial subject when it comes to the overall ecosystem and coexisting with humans. Many people who oppose predator reintroduction are in the hunting community for various reasons. Animals that currently live in states that do not have a population of wolves or grizzly bears do not have the experience of how to allude to them effectively. For decades, some states have only had hunters as predators to control the population of various species of ungulates. Hunters are easy to manage since the department of wildlife for a prospective state tracks license sales, harvest statistics and animal populations year after year. They use this data to determine the number of licenses for the next year and increase or lower that number, depending upon animal populations. They do this to optimize the habitat of each species in order for the animals living there to have the best life and prevent disease and starvation.
I am not here to argue the reintroduction of apex predators into the ecosystem one way or another; however, the facts show that there is an increase of wolves and grizzly bear numbers in our ecosystem. When their home range expands, it does change the way that the other animals behave and how we hunt them. Here are some interesting things to think about when hunting in the ever-changing predator habitat in the West.
Hunting in predator country means different things depending on which predators are present. The first thing that anyone should do in regards to this subject is some basic research. It is important to know what predators are in your prospective hunting zone and how you will or will not interact with them. For example, if you are hunting in the ever-expanding grizzly country of Wyoming, Idaho or Montana, what must you do to be prepared prior and while you are hunting? Something you might want to understand is how to use bear spray appropriately or how to manage your camp. Something as simple as understanding the best way to hang your food in a tree to keep bears from getting into it might keep you from having problems. Once you have determined what predators are there and learned about them you will be much more prepared for your hunt. While maps, internet information and local biologists may help you determine whether populations are high or low, I always use my boots on the ground experience.
When hunting, I always keep an eye out for scat and tracks that belong to predators. The more you understand what else is out there hunting should help you to make better decisions. For example, if you put a deer on the ground, you may not want to leave it overnight in wolf country because the wolves will find it and eat it or, if you do leave it, you might want to use caution coming in the next morning in bear country. Understanding what you are looking for and more about the predators that live there should make you more comfortable because you will do things the safe way.
The behavior of ungulates like deer and elk can be vastly different in places depending on whether or not they deal with year-round predation. Some of the experiences I have had show that instincts for survival can often trump instincts for breeding, bedding or eating. Elk in areas with high wolf or grizzly bear populations may be less likely to bugle during the rut as an instinctual way to not give away their position to predators. Deer or elk might be extremely skittish in the open or be less susceptible to a stalk if they are constantly alluding stalking wolves or lions. They may bed in different locations daily and not create habitual travel routines to avoid predators figuring them out. By understanding the densities of wolves and grizzly bears in a certain area, it will help explain why animals may act differently in the mountains of Idaho than they do in the mountains of Arizona where these predators are not prevalent in the wild.
After you understand which predators are present and how animals change their behavior based upon that, it is your responsibility as a hunter (who wishes to be successful) to adapt to those changes and overcome the obstacles predators cause. In high predator concentrated areas, sitting on travel corridors, pinch points or calling lightly maybe just the changes needed to be successful. Unless something drastically changes in our culture, the habitat for predators will continue to be expanded. Year after year, more and more people seem to want them to inhabit the same terrain they did centuries ago. Eventually, hunters will need to learn to adapt and change their techniques if they wish to be consistently successful.
Overall, predators will always be a part of the wild. Understanding which predators live where you hunt, identifying changes in animal behavior, and adapting and overcoming the obstacles predators cause will make you a better hunter. Whether you support the introduction and expansion of these apex predators or not, it is still happening naturally today. Bears, wolves and other major predators are still breeding and searching far and wide for food. Respecting them and understanding that they were occupying the West for thousands of years before most of our ancestors ever stepped foot in North America is important. You don’t have to like them, but it is vital that you understand them if you are going to hunt in their backyards successfully this year and for years to come.