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Spring bear hunters a special breed

Black bears emerging from dens eat green grass to kick-start digestion. (File Associated Press)
Black bears emerging from dens eat green grass to kick-start digestion. (File Associated Press)

While most big-game hunters are prowling their permit applications, a hardy few are in the field.

They’re out for bear, the region’s only big-game animal that has both a fall and a spring season.

Washington allows fewer than 400 permits statewide for spring bear hunts, which start Thursday. Idaho issues 150 spring bear permits for a controlled season that opened April 1.

In Montana, any hunter can buy a spring bear tag.

Fall bears tend to be fatter after a summer of preparing for hibernation. Many hunters say fall bears taste better. But the spring hides are usually better quality, unless they’ve rubbed patches bare during the winter snooze.

When they emerge from dens in spring, most bears head for the first green grass they can find. Their digestive system has shut down over the winter, and grass helps get things going again. They’ll avoid winter-killed animals for a couple of weeks until digestive juices are flowing.

Savvy early-season hunters head for the edge of the snow line. As the days lengthen, they’ll shift to avalanche chutes and other places where bears might find carrion.

While Idaho allows baiting and hunting with dogs, spring bear hunters in Montana and Washington must rely on basic individual hunting skills.

“There’s a lot of bears out there, but they don’t run in herds and you’ve got to cover a lot of ground and do a lot of glassing,” said Stevensville, Mont., bear hunter Fred Upchurch. “And you’ve got to be a really good stalker. They say a bear doesn’t have great eyesight, but he’s got as good as you. His nose is what will give you away every time.”

Solitary bears are more likely to be males, while bears traveling in twos or threes can be yearlings or sows with juvenile cubs. But bear hunters must take time to identify their target.

It’s illegal to take a cub of the year or a sow with cubs. Killing a protected grizzly bear is a federal offense.

Experienced bear hunters use clues to help orient to the bear’s size and gender from a distance through optics.

“If you can see the feet, see the claws and stuff, that can help (gauge size),” Upchurch said. “If he looks like he’s got attitude, if he runs into the middle of (snow) slides without a problem, he thinks he can take care of himself. Not like a little one sneaking around the edges.”

Male bears usually are the first to emerge from dens in late March and April, while females with cubs generally come out later in May.

The region’s bigger black bears tend to live in northeastern Washington, North Idaho and northwestern Montana, because of the more abundant berry crops.

Washington’s Blue Mountains have a robust black bear population the state has targeted with limited spring hunting primarily to reduce their heavy predation on elk calves during summer.

For hunters like Upchurch, the best thing about spring bear hunting is the excuse it provides to get into the hills.

“It’s a fun time being out there,” he said. “One time, I saw one of the neatest sights. I watched two mountain lions chase a mule deer across a snow slide. It got away and they gave it up and started playing. It was just like a National Geographic show. It’s a fun time to be out in the woods.”