by James A. Swan, Ph.D. - Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Suppose you’re hunting and you see a nice buck, bull elk or moose. The season is open. You have your license and tag. The shot is safe and in range so you take it. The animal drops. But what if as you approach the animal you see or hear something else approaching? If it’s another hunter or a game warden, that’s one thing. But suppose it’s a predator like a wolf or a bear that has decided you just provided dinner?
In an earlier NRAHLF.org article, I highlighted research conducted by ethologist Dr. Valerius Geist in British Columbia revealing how wolves that habituate to people can lead to attacks on livestock, pets … and people. A professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary and the former program director of environmental sciences at the University of Calgary, he is known worldwide for his studies on large game animals. Geist found that in countries where most people don’t hunt or own guns—Siberia, India, Kazakhstan, etc.—wolves are more likely to attack people. In North America, where firearms ownership is greater, wolves more often keep their distance when they hear gunshots.
I recently got an e-mail from Geist sharing important information for hunters after receiving an article from Germany documenting that country’s expanding wolf population. Counting the wolves using photographs of traps, animal feces, tracks and other traces, German researchers found 60 wolf packs—13 more than the previous year. Overall, there are now between 150-160 adult wolves in Germany, though it is not legal to hunt them to maintain their populations as they are an endangered species.
Because wolves aren’t managed, German hunters are reporting that when they shoot a game animal, wolves are drawn to the location of the gunfire. Hunters shoot animals that wolves eat, and wolves can’t be shot, so gun shots serve as wolves’ dinner bell. (You may recall hearing reports of a similar scenario out West in states like Idaho where elk hunters’ gun shots attracted wolves.) Some hunters even have stopped hunting because they cannot retrieve their game.
Geist sent the article to a dozen friends, asking for their comments about such issues with predators. He asked me to report on it so I contacted experts in animal behavior.
Predators Get It
Jim Low, a retired Alaska game warden, told me, “A gunshot on Kodiak Island attracts bears. Many hunters have killed deer on Kodiak Island only to have a Kodiak brown bear show up to dine on venison.”
Joe Hosmer, former president of the Safari Club International Foundation said he, too, has seen this while blacktail hunting on Kodiak Island. “When a deer is shot, the bears come running," Hosner said. “The hunter needs to give up the deer and move on”—unless he also has a bear license.
A third report of bears attacking hunters on Kodiak Island came from Alaska Wildlife Troopers' Sgt. Shane Nicholson, who spent years hunting the island and has personally witnessed bears coming to the sound of gunshots. “In one instance, I observed a bear come from a half mile away and arrive just as I was finishing loading deer meat into my pack. It sat 100 yards away until I departed and then moved in to the gut pile.” Other area hunters reported similar experiences.
Professor Charles Kay at Utah State University agrees that bears can be attracted by sounds of gunshots to game animals that hunters have killed.
But wolves and bears are not the only predators that can be attracted to hunters’ gunshots. Jim Beers, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent, biologist and administrator, wrote, “Alligators in Louisiana have for decades exhibited a similar proclivity. This was explained to me years ago by an old WWII Veteran Cajun in Louisiana, who said, ‘Many years ago alligators seemed to constitute a growing danger to duck hunters’ ability to retrieve ducks and/or send retrievers into the water.’” As he told it, during WWII alligator densities increased because women weren’t buying luxury alligator items. After WWII, as things got back to normal, duck hunters noticed that alligators were coming to gunshots, associating them with dead ducks and hunting dogs. Their tiny reptilian brains registered that busy shooting areas and the sounds of men plopping decoys meant fresh ducks and a dog.
As a Siberian biologist asked me decades ago, “Is it true that in America you have introduced wolves and that you protect them?” I said, “That is true.” He shook his head and asked, “How did you ever win the Cold War?”
One person I contacted in Africa said this problem was not happening there because people regularly shoot predators. However, another contact said if one fires a gun and a lion is nearby, the lion may run toward the shooter.
Professor Kaj Granlund at the University of Oslo in Norway reported a unique twist on how predators come after hunters’ game. “I have had experiences from the past where the Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was claiming black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) that I had shot but my dog had not yet found,” he said.
Hunters Need to Get It
The bottom line: If you are hunting amongst predators and shoot a game animal, be aware that one may approach. Geist points out two incidents in North America where hunters have been killed by grizzlies. In 1995 elk hunters Shane Fumerton and William Caspell were killed by a female grizzly near Radium Hotsprings British Columbia after taking a large bull elk.
A second bear attack in Montana in 2001 was reported in Field and Stream: “Bear killed hunter; may have been attracted by the shot. Never had a chance to use his rifle. The danger there is deadly.”
Four Ways Hunters Can Protect Themselves and Their Dogs
Based on his research, Geist has advice on what to do when in grizzly or wolf country.
1. First, never hunt alone and remain watchful. You will not hear a bear approaching. “The hunters who were killed at their elk kills never had a chance to use their guns,” he said. … “Bears attracted to gunfire in anticipation of a meal will approach just as they would a rival and surprise him with a quick, massive attack. Grizzly bears have approached black bears on kills and killed them instantly.”
2. Second, have a hunting partner serve as a guard to watch in case a predator approaches. “If one does,” he said, “the rational response would be to kill it because it has learned the wrong lesson and will come again if rewarded. But, then what does one do about laws?”
3. Third, watch over your hunting dog as hunters approaching a kill or a blood-trail with their tracking dog are in danger of losing it to a wolf pack. In 2016 in Wisconsin, wolves killed 41 hunting dogs.
4. Fourth, Geist said the Germany example is so vital because it shows the consequences of zealous protectionism. Europe’s wolf population is growing exponentially with no wolf-population control due to prohibitions of European Union legislation. “Wolves are free to do anything they like,” he said, adding, “and the punishment for killing a wolf is draconian!”
Geist emphasized that if our wolves learn to do as German wolves do, expect trouble. One thing a hunter cannot do, he said, is shoot his way out of a big wolf pack with a conventional hunting rifle. The approaching target is too erratic to hit except at close range. Also, five shots will not carry you far with an entire pack.
To Geist’s point, a few years ago a friend in Idaho was coyote hunting with his son, using a wounded-rabbit call to attract coyotes. Instead a pack of wolves approached. At that time wolves only could be shot if they were attacking. The hunters fired shots in the wolves’ direction to make them disperse.
So when you are hunting in areas where predators are known to roam, keep your eyes and ears open. And keep your firearm loaded and available just in case some hungry critters decide that your gunshot is a dinner bell.
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