Hunting Bears With Hounds in Idaho's Boise National Forest

Hunting big game with the aid of dogs is a hot topic. Some hunters say that following hounds pursuing a bear or mountain lion is very exciting, and they find joy in watching their dogs doing what they're instinctually born to do. Others disapprove, saying that the method violates fair-chase ethics, can border on animal cruelty, and can give hunters an unfair advantage over their quarry. If I can, I try something before I form an opinion about it. So for a few days in mid May, I joined Table Mountain Outfitters owners Scott and Angie Denny (www.tablemountainoutfitters.com), and their hounds in southwestern Idaho for a bear hunt.
If you want to hunt bears, you have to find bears, and in the Rocky Mountains that's often easier said than done. With home ranges that exceed several square miles of dense forest as well as senses hundreds of times more powerful than a human's, bears are tough to locate here. That's where the dogs come in. Every morning, while most of the outfitter's dogs ride in truck beds on specially constructed platforms, one or two (typically the best of the pack) ride tethered on a modified engine hood. As you drive along National Forest roads, the dogs stretch forward with their noses in the air, like living hood ornaments. They shift their heads in all directions, trying to catch the scent of a nearby bear.
When the dogs smell a bear or a nearby residual scent, called a track, they become noticeably excited and bark in unison. Hound handlers call this a strike. A guide may release a single hound to gauge the scent trail's strength. If the scent trail is old, the dog returns to the truck and you move on. If the scent trail is hot, the dog follows his nose, the guide unleashes the rest of the team, and a chorus of barking and howling bounds into the forest on what the guides called a race.
Despite a hound's keen talent for locating bears, not everyone views hunting with dogs as a management tool or ethical endeavor. The Sierra Club recently joined the list of vocal antagonists against big game hunting with hounds by publicly opposing California's proposal to combat escalating bear populations by raising the allowable bear harvest number, expanding bear hunting opportunities to new counties, and allowing the use of traceable GPS dog collars. Anti-hunting groups hopped on the bandwagon, and in response, the California Fish and Game Commission tabled any new bear-hunting regulations until they had more time to address public concerns.
We were hunting in Idaho, where such technology is already legal, and so Table Mountain Outfitter's dogs are fitted with collars that emit a GPS traceable signal. This allows handlers to watch the race develop on a hand-held unit that displays each dog as a different colored icon superimposed over a topographical map. Handlers can even zoom in to a scale of just 20 feet and watch real-time updates of the dog's movements.
GPS technology has been a boon to the sport because it gives outfitters and guides a good indicator of where their dogs are located. The eye-in-the-sky has even allowed Table Mountain Outfitters to locate dogs picked up by hikers or campers who had assumed the dogs were lost or abandoned (even though every dog also wears a tag that says I am not lost. Please do not take me home. My owner will pick me up soon). A season before they began using GPS, a few Table Mountain Outfitter dogs separated from the pack during a mountain lion hunt. Though Scott and Angie tried daily to intercept the group, the dogs refused to give up and roamed the snowy mountains on the trail of a cat for six days. Scott and Angie eventually recovered the dogs, but they're convinced GPS assistance would have helped them do it in less time.
GPS technology also helps hunters safeguard dogs against their wild relatives -- wolves. Just last year, in the middle of a race that started high on a mountain, wolves attacked Scott and Angie's dogs. By the time they worked down the hillside and reached the scene (which was, ironically, within earshot of their cabin), the wolves had killed one and seriously injured two other hounds. "The main reason we use GPS is because of the horrific wolf situation in Idaho," Angie Denny says. "Houndsmen efficiently ran their dogs for years without the aid of GPS before they introduced wolves. But now there are so many wolves in these mountains that the likelihood of one or more attacking our dogs is very high and we need to be able to retrieve them as quickly as possible at the first sign of trouble. The bottom line is it's proven to be invaluable as a tool to keep our hunters and our dogs safe."
On this hunt I learned quickly that those who think hounds make hunting easy are sadly mistaken. Hunting bears in the Rocky Mountains is physically demanding. While the dogs are incredibly effective at locating bears, you still face the daunting task of ascending and descending Idaho's steep terrain. At one point, we climbed over 1,100 feet but traveled just a few hundred yards as the crow flies. Like elk, sheep, and mountain goat hunting, if you're not in shape, or you pinched pennies on boots and socks, you're starting behind the eight ball.
One race took us into an incredibly steep drainage. The dogs pushed a bear up a tree, surrounded the base, and barked and howled to help us pinpoint their location and to keep the animal from fleeing.
Before this hunt, I had felt apprehensive that hounds might place harmful stress on bears. However, when we reached our first treed animal, a small one- or two-year old blonde-phase bear, I was happy to see it sitting on a branch, acting as cool as a cucumber. I don't know if this encounter was the exception or the norm, but it eased my conscience. Some claim it's cruel to pursue animals you don't intend to harvest, but you don't know if you're going to harvest a bear until you see it, and you can't see it unless you track it. What's more, judging by the blonde bear's nonchalant attitude, it was as much at home in the tree watching us as we were on the ground watching it. After that event, I decided that the idea of stress is relative and arbitrary and I'd rather see a bear and elect to pass, than to not chase at all.
Black bears are incredibly difficult to field judge. But one of the benefits of hunting with hounds is that doing so often allows hunters time to view a bear from all angles and judge the size, age, color, and sex of the animal (hunters typically prefer boars over sows). A bear in a tree, for example, typically won't leave its perch as long as humans and dogs are present, so hunters aren't forced to make snap decisions on pulling the trigger and those bears that need a few years to grow, like this little blond bruin, are left unharmed. Deciding this wasn't the bear we wanted to harvest, Scott, Angie and I collected the dogs and moved downhill. The bear abandoned the tree and walked off in the opposite direction.
On another race, the scent trail took us through a cold tributary stream that was 20 yards wide and thigh deep. In the heat of the moment, we jumped in the water and waded to the other side, soaking our pants, socks, and boots, before navigating through a mix of open areas and jungle-thick underbrush. Later, we learned a makeshift bridge in the form of a fallen tree and an open trail had been just upstream.
If you've never endured a hard hike in wet socks and boots, I don't recommend it. Scott and Angie wore boots tailored for the terrain. Replaceable metal spikes protruding from the soles helped them get the best possible foothold in every situation--wet or dry. I was not so well prepared, but with the sound of howling dogs growing louder with each step, I had no time or inclination think about the discomfort.
Sidestepping down an abrupt hillside, we tried cutting through the growth and assessing the situation, but the sound of barking dogs echoing through the canyon made it difficult to key on their position. Suddenly Scott put his hand up and blocked me from taking another step. "He's right here," he said. I had been focused on looking at the base of a tree where the dogs were barking. I raised my gaze to where he was pointing and saw claw gouges in the tree's bark shadowed by a bear straddling two large branches, staring intently in our direction, just 10 feet away.
Adrenaline took over. Fearing the bear would jump and lead us on another race, I took a position next to the tree, 12 feet directly under the bear. With my gun pointed up, Scott and Angie collected the dogs while communicating all their movements in a calm, relaxed manner. The bear looked down, snapped its jaw and gums, and drooled on my riflescope and hat.
Seconds later, Scott signaled it was safe to shoot. I pulled the trigger, felt the passing breeze of a large mass crashing towards earth, and watched the bear collapse with a thud at my feet.
While southwestern Idaho isn't known for holding big bears compared to places like Canada, nearly 80 percent of the bears harvested are color-phase bears. The coat on this boar was a chocolate color with red highlights and a white crest on its chest.
We skinned, quartered, and packed the bear out of the mountains. Back at the cabin, we sprawled out the pelt and dug out a tape measure. The hide measured 6 feet, 4 inches from nose to tail, and had a 6-foot, 8-inch front arm span; a respectable size for an Idaho bear.
Though dog-hunting techniques, methods, and routines vary slightly depending on geographic regions and terrain, hunting with hounds is not for everyone. Ethical debates aside, it's hard work and physically demanding, especially if you're hunting in the mountainous West. However, because it's so active, I was able to see landscapes I might not have seen otherwise, and collected more memorable experiences than I anticipated.
I've had time to digest my experience, and from my perspective, hunting with hounds is a sporting and valuable management tool. It is not an easy way to hunt. Dog owners spend massive amounts of time, money, and energy in the care and training of their hounds, and they bring that same level of care and respect with them into the field when they hunt.
Like trapping, hunting behind dogs is a fading art rooted deep in our outdoor heritage and traditions. While anti-hunting and animal rights groups will continue to promote the stereotype of dog hunters as bloodthirsty and inhumane, I found the opposite to be true. I was glad I took the time to participate in this hunt because it directly addressed some of my fears, concerns, and apprehensions, and granted me an honest perspective on the activity. As sportsmen, we already admire and revere dogs' talents when it comes to waterfowl and upland game bird hunts, or the tenacious way they can find small game like rabbits and raccoons. It then seems illogical to single out and condemn bear hunters or to restrict bear dogs from demonstrating their instinctual abilities when it comes to pursuing these magnificent big game animals.