By Al Raychard
I’ve said this several times over the years but I’ll say it again in case you missed it the second, third or at some time in the past. Of the states down the spine of the Rocky Mountains Idaho is my favorite destination when it comes to hunting bears. This does not mean to suggest states to the east, west and south do not have their special attributes that make them special in their own right, they certainly do, but for me there’s simply no place like Idaho, especially when it comes to bear hunting opportunities.
Based on my own personal experiences there are a number of reasons why hunting Idaho holds such a dear place in my heart. There’s the memories of successful hunts, of friends made, of riding mules into the backcountry and of camping in those remote places under ebony skies speckled with stars so bright it seems you can reach out and grab them, of the scent of spruce and fir and wood smoke on a chilled night at high elevation, of those remote places where bears grow old and big and have seen few humans. But, from the perspective of a hunter planning a bear hunt there are other reasons why Idaho is, as its nickname states, such a “gem.”
LOTS OF BEARS
According to most sources Idaho is home to between 20,000 and 30,000 black bears, but that’s just and estimate. Whatever the case Idaho is home to one of the largest black bear populations in the western United States if not the Lower 48. The population is healthy and increasing and bears are now being reported in areas of the state where sightings were considered rare just a few years ago. The highest concentration of black bears is found in the forested northern two-thirds of the state, in particular the mountain ranges, subalpine ridges, associated foothills and riparian areas along the lengthy Bitterroots along the border with Montana and Salmon River Mountains and Sawtooth Range in the central region. The remote Selkirk Mountains in the northern Panhandle, the vast Selway Region and designated wilderness areas to the south are home to some of the highest bear densities in the state. To the south, bears are also found in the Caribou Range in the southeast corner east of Pocatello and Owyhee Range in the southwest south of Boise.
LOTS OF ROOM TO HUNT/LOTS OF OUTFITTERS
More than sixty-percent of Idaho is owned by the federal government, some thirty-three million acres. More than twenty million acre of that is in the form of seven national forests. That’s about forty-percent of the state’s land area. Needless to say there is plenty of public land to hunt bears.
All my Idaho hunts have been with an outfitter in the St. Joe or Clearwater National Forests and unless the hunter has a great deal of experience in remote, do-it-yourself hunts an outfitter is recommended. This is big, rugged country and hunting with an outfitter is the easiest, safety and typically most successful way to plan and experience an Idaho bear hunt. Highly qualified and knowledgeable outfitters operate in each of the national forests offering a variety of accommodations, services and hunting packages.
A list of licensed outfitters is available from the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.
These same national forests are also popular among do-it- yourself hunters but careful planning is a must including where to hunt, obtaining maps, weather conditions and necessary equipment and where to camps, among other. Campgrounds are available throughout each national forest but open and closing dates, fees if any, whether reservations are needed or not, availability of drinking water and other services vary. Specific and helpful information can be obtained on each national forest as well as campgrounds can be obtained from each national forest supervisor’s office.
COLOR PHASE BEARS & HIGH SUCCESS
Color-phase bears are found throughout the western United States and parts of western Canada but Idaho offers as good a chance to kill one as any place. In general brown or chocolate-phase bears are most common in northern Idaho with cinnamon and blonde less so, although the farther south you go the percentage of lighter bears increases.
Colored bears can and are taken throughout Idaho. In some cases success boils down to being in the right place at the right time but hunting the right habitat greatly increases the odds. Colored bears are taken in the dense timber but areas that offer a combination of timber bordering open, south-facing slopes, wide-open river valleys, open brakes and canyons are general hotspots. These areas are generally warmer and it is believed the lighter hair color helps bears stay cooler. Whether hunting with an outfitter or doing it on your own the St. Joe and Clearwater National Forests, the Selway, the Salmon River country and Frank Church Wilderness and national forests in the southeast and southwest, to name but a few all offer this time of mixed habitat.
A word of note here. Hunters specifically wanting an opportunity at a colored bear should let their outfitter know of their desires when booking a hunt. Many outfitters utilize trail cameras on their baits or are familiar with the bears in their area. There’s no guarantees here but informing your outfitter beforehand can help achieve success.
Idaho offers a lengthy spring bear season but open and closing dates vary. In the Panhandle the season open as early as April and generally in May elsewhere. Closing dates are in June or July. Fall season dates also vary. Most open August 30 and some close as late as November 30, depending on the unit. Falls hunts can also be combined with hunts for elk and deer. Depending upon the unit and season hunters can hunt over bait and with dogs, in some units both are prohibited so hunters should be sure to check when booking or planning a hunt. Spot-and-stalk is legal in all units.
Compared to some other western states bear hunting Idaho is one of the best deals available when it comes to over the-counter hunting license and bear tag availability and fees (see Particulars below). Another bonus is resident and non-resident hunters can purchase vastly discounted bear tags in at least seventeen units and portions of two others. These same units also offer the opportunity to take two bears with discounted tags, something increasingly rather in the west. Hunters also have the option of applying for one of the controlled black hunts, although application deadline dates apply.
Estimated Bear Population: 25,000-30,000 +/-
Legal Limit: Two (2) in some units, one (1) in some units.
Hunting Area: Black bears are basically legal game statewide except some state parks, wildlife preserves and developed areas.
Spring Hunts/Dates: Yes. Varies by unit. April 1-June 30 or late July depending upon unit.
Fall Hunts: Yes. August 30-end of November in most units.
Popular Hunting Methods: Baiting and dogs are allowed in most units. Spot-and-stalk. License Available/Fees: License are available by phone, on-line and venders statewide. Non-resident reduced/second bear license-$41.75. Non-resident full price bear license-$231.00. Non-resident hunting license-$185.00. Non-resident Junior Hunting License (ages 10-17) $91.75.
Legal Weapons-Rifles and handguns except those that take rim fire ammo;
.50 caliber and larger muzzleloaders; bows with 40 pound pull and higher; crossbows 150 pound minimum draw.
Contacts: Idaho Fish and Game, 1 (208) 334-3700; www.fishandgame.idaho.gov.
Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association, 1 (208) 327-7380; www.ioga.org.