Elk NetworkPrey School

Hunting | January 1, 2016

Prey School


As hunters, we do everything wrong when trying to avoid encounters with other predators. We’re quiet, keep the wind in our face and smell like a hot cow. We roam about in the pre-dawn light, bugling and cow-calling, sounding and smelling like an all-you-can-eat buffet for cats, bears and wolves. But that’s how we kill elk. 

If a close encounter with a fellow predator isn’t in the back of your mind when you’re out there, it should be. So what do you do if you come too close for comfort with a mountain lion, bear or even a pack of wolves? Surprisingly, bullets might not be your best bet.


Mountain Lions

If you’re shadowed or suddenly confronted by a lion, get big and bold.  Stand tall, wave your arms, talk loudly and aggressively. Throw rocks at it. A stalking lion is a tough target with a bow, but easy to hit with a cone of bear spray.  A lion’s nose is very sensitive and a blast of bear spray to the schnoz will send it packing.

If you are attacked, the lion will most likely go for the neck and head. Lions much prefer quick kills to tussels. Fight back hard and try to jam bow, gun, bear spray or your fist in its mouth.  Better a bite to the back of the hand than the back of your neck.


Black bears

Almost all elk country is black bear country. As big as they are, a bear can be surprisingly quiet. Most times, surprised black bears will turn tail and run. Some, though, are predatory and don’t care what kind of heat you’re packing.   Again, get big and bold.  Stand your ground, wave your arms, shout.  A sow with cubs or a bear on a kill will likely bluff charge or attack if it sees you as a threat. In this situation, bear spray is 92 percent effective in stopping the attack, according to a 2008 Alaskan study. Guns miss or just infuriate the charging brutes who can still attack and maim even if you’ve emptied your magazine. If a black bear does mange to pounce on you, fight back.


Grizzly bears

There are now upwards of 1,400 grizzlies in the Lower 48, and the population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem was removed from the Endangered Species List last year.  In short, there are more griz in elk country. Grizzlies are the top of the food chain and more territorial than a black bear. They’ll often bluff charge to keep you moving on. If you surprise one, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Do not run. 

Guns are even less effective on these barrel-chested bruins. For your own sake and the bear’s, spray should be your first line of defense. “A lot of times when bears bluff charge, you don’t know they’re bluffing,” says Pride Johnson, owner of Counter Assault bear spray. “I’m a hunter, but I just don’t want to kill an animal I don’t have to.”  Dousing one with bear spray will also save you a lot more trouble explaining yourself to the federal wardens. Johnson adds having the bear spray on your hip—not in your pack—Can make the crucial difference.  If a bear does attack, cover your neck with your hands, lay on your stomach and play dead.



Defense against a single wolf mirrors that for lions and black bears.  Get big, act tough, maintain eye contact, do not turn your back, do not run. Keep a sharp eye behind you in case other wolves are slipping in.  Wolves are usually surprised to see a human on the other end of a bugle rather than a nice bull.  Most times they tuck tail and run. Wolves’ noses are very sensitive -bear spray should thwart any attack. Remember though, a can usually only lasts for seven seconds. If that’s gone and you still feel threatened, fire a round over their heads and start looking for a tree to climb. If wolves persist, lethal reduction may be your only option.