By Brian Strickland
For many western hunters, elk, mule deer and antelope seem to be at the top of their to-do list as the leaves turn gold every fall, and frankly I can’t blame them. It’s hard to compete with the bugle of a rutting bull elk, the impressive heavy rack of a mule deer buck or the lightning quickness of an antelope buck. However, in my opinion, black bears should also make that esteemed western list. With most hunters focusing on the horns come fall, it’s a great time to zero in on western bruins.
Although virtually every state west of the Great Plains has bear hunting opportunities, some are obviously better than others. Here is the list of some of the top destinations that offer easy to get tags, solid bear numbers, multiple ways to hunt them and the opportunity to put one in the record books.
As a Colorado resident, I’m proud to say the Centennial State is one of the top western record book black bear producers, and that’s saying something since it only offers opportunities in the fall. Because most hunters are more focused on Colorado’s burgeoning elk and mule deer herds, most successful bear hunters are more opportunistic, harvesting bears when they happen to run across one. On average, just over 1,000 bears are killed annually.
Colorado offers a couple ways to grab a bear tag: over-the-counter with caps and a pure preference point draw system. Over-the-counter with caps means a specific number of tags are sold on a first come first serve basis until that limit is reached in a specific unit. The preference point system allows hunters to build points in unsuccessful draw attempts, but once enough points are accumulated for the specific unit, the applicant draws the tag.
Although you can run across a bear from virtually any basin west of Colorado’s Front Range, there are several areas that offer prime habitat and lots of bears. The Gunnison Basin is always a good producer in units 53, 54 and 521, as well as the acorn ridges of the Uncompahgre Plateau in units 40, 61, 62 and 65.
You can’t write about top western bear hunting destinations without mentioning Idaho. With opportunities to hunt them virtually any way you desire, an ample supply of bruins at your disposal, over-the-counter tags in most areas, and vast amounts of public land to stretch out on, Idaho is simply the best destination for the non-resident hunter. Over 2,000 bears are harvested annually, which tops all other western destinations. And although it has a reputation of producing smaller bears, some real head-turners live there as well. In fact, my biggest bear to date came from Idaho a few years ago, and he weighed nearly 300-pounds, was a 6-plus footer and had a 19-inch skull.
The regions carrying the highest bear densities, as well as the opportunity to harvest a pair of bears in specific units, are the Panhandle and Clearwater regions in the northern part of the state. These areas hold the highest hunter success rates annually with about three-quarters of Idaho’s annual bear harvest coming from these remote regions.
Grand Canyon State
Although not thought of as a solid bear-hunting destination, this Southwest region should not be overlooked for an over-sized bruin this fall. It has some of the largest western bears listed in the B&C Record Book with one of the largest coming from Greenlee County. This monster bruin stretched the tape a whopping 22 9/16 inches. Believe it or not, only California and Colorado have produced more B&C all-time record book western bears than Arizona.
Unlike Idaho, which offers excellent numbers of bears stretched across vast region, Arizona bears are more localized. Some of the best hunting is found north of the Mogollon Rim, with the more productive units being 6a, 6b and 8. These areas offer the best habitat and highest bear density in the state. Other notable areas are in units 1 and 27 in the Pinetop region, and units 29 through 32 in the Tucson Region.
There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 bears living in this desert state, with about 250 of them being killed annually, most of which are taken by opportunistic hunters who were lucky enough to draw elk or deer tags. Because these bears live in the dry Southwest, food sources can be scarce. Typically after the summer monsoon season, food sources like nuts and prickly pear fruit are in prime shape, making them bear magnets come fall.
Although tags are easy to come by in most areas, it’s no easy hunt. Arizona bears are often found in rugged terrain that requires tons of time behind the glass. However, because of the unique Southwest setting, the vast array of color phase bears Arizona produces, as well as trophy potential, it truly is a unique western adventure.
For the spot and stalk hunter, it’s hard to beat the opportunities Montana offers for the hunter looking to grab an over-the-counter tag. Its vast mountainous regions hold excellent numbers of fall bruins, and although Montana doesn’t produce the numbers of record book bears as other western destinations, for the DIY hunter looking to embark on an epic western adventure, it’s hard to beat. About 1,100 bears are harvested annually, and those are solid numbers when you consider only spot-n-stalk hunting is allowed.
Without question, the best region to start glassing is Region 1 in the northwest. On average over half of the bears harvested statewide come from there. This is where the best habitat is, and bear numbers tend to be well-above average. Because this area offers a level of remoteness as well, it tends to produce Montana’s best trophy potential.
During the fall season, hunters should concentrate their efforts around the ample supply of berry patches as bears can be found loading up throughout the day. Just get on a high ridge and glass; it won’t be long before you start spotting bears. Keep in mind that Montana also has its share of grizzlies. Although it won’t be long before hunters in the Lower 48 will have an opportunity to harvest this epic apex predator as numbers increase, don’t make that mistake this season.