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This weekend I headed over the continental divide to the Sun River, to go bear hunting. Why? I’ve never shot a bear, never butchered a bear, and never eaten bear. Maybe once I have, I never will again.

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I have a number of hunting ambitions later this year, for which I need some training up, but most of all I like getting out right on the edge of winter. While it seems I always see bear sign, often lots of it, on my April and May trips, it would be a different experience specifically looking for black bears. I reckoned that the Sun River complex, which faces south and catches a bunch of sun, would be a good place to find early bears.

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I saw no bears, which was not surprising. Even in a place like the Bob, bears are rare and roam far. I saw no bear sign whatsoever, which was surprising. My current theory is that while I was able to walk 15 miles in before coming upon significant snow, we haven’t yet had enough really warm days to get the foliage greening up. The bears, by instinct, know there isn’t much to eat yet, so they’re staying in the ground another few weeks.

I did see a lot of other wildlife, starting with these two bighorn rams. The reservoir was down, more than I’ve ever seen it. Glassing open hillsides as I hiked in I saw a lot of mule deer out enjoying a sunny, windy day.

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One nice thing about being early in the Bob is that the horse traffic has yet to kick in. Though in all fairness, the elk probably contribute to trail braiding like this.

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I made my way into the North Fork drainage, and eventually up onto the well-named elk hill. Fresh elk sign was everywhere, and I saw many groups of 2-6 animals browsing along the edges of the trees. Fox, coyote, and wolf tracks were also very much in evidence.

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I had lots of good vantages for glassing, and covered plenty of lower areas, south-facing hillsides below snowpatches, which were soaked with water and the greenest stuff around. No bear tracks. No bear scat. Not promising.

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Magic happens after you’ve been hunkered down glassing for about 45 minutes. These elk fed right along the treeline 150 yards below me. For around an hour I was able to alternately glass the far meadows, and observe their progress. I was just down from the crest of the ridge, reclined against my pack and wearing a blue coat, but so long as didn’t move too much they never looked up.

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More elk, but no bears, materialized as the hour grew late. I made my way down to the river, chilled from sitting so long, made a fire, ate, drank tea, revealed in the stars, and went to bed.

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The wind had never been less than 15 mph the first day, and did not relent overnight. I woke once to pattering overhead, which I thought was rain. It was a actually a dusting of snow, and the morning was fiercely cold.

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An elk had walked 2 feet from my head sometime in the night. I retrieved my food bag and got back in the mid to make coffee.

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Now down in the flood plains and sage bottoms, I had a different angle on what I had looked over the previous day. 4 separate elk groups were feeding across the hill, moving in and out of sight through the aspens. I glassed, then walked quickly, then stopped again. Building heat was tough with so much to look at, especially when I soaked a foot crossing a stream.

Suddenly I was a grey flash. Binoculars confirmed it: not a coyote, a wolf. With three more for company, 2 light grey and one charcoal black. They moved upslope, towards the elk. One group of elk got nervous, and trotted ahead. I couldn’t see the wolves. My feet and hands were freezing. Another group of elk got nervous and trotted ahead. Still no wolves. I walked another 200 yards and looked again. Repeat. At the bitter end of foot-feeling I saw the highest group of elk sprinting, and one grey wolf arcing downhill through the sage, cutting one elk out of the group, and herding it out of sight into some aspens. I assume to its companions, who brought it down.

I thought about climbing the hill to get a view of the kill, but there wasn’t a way to do that without getting winded by the wolves, and I was not inclined to disturb them. They certainly need elk more than I do.

I moved on, content, having had a front row seat to something I’d never before seen.

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I saw more sheep on the way out, and more deer, but everything seemed to be hunkered down as the wind whipped up and the sunny day stayed bitterly cold. I headed home early, a fantastic backpacking trip in the bag, and inclined to do other things with the rest of the weekend if the bears were not yet in evidence.

I’ll be back.

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