From March/April 2020
By Al Raychard
I’ve hunted Wyoming several times over the years, each one on my favorites list. With its ten national forests covering nearly nine million acres and abundant wildlife the Cowboy State certainly has a way of getting under your skin, particularly if you’re a hunter. Vivid memories of several adventurous pack trips into the high wilds of the Bridger-Teton National Forest are still clear in my mind and will undoubtedly remain there until they put me in the ground.
Each of those planned hunts were for elk or deer, big game species Wyoming is noted for. Never once did I give hunting bears a thought. Looking back on it, it was a major error in judgement and decision making on my part. But completely understandable.
Compared to some western states Wyoming has never had a reputation as a major destination among bear hunters. Part of the reason for that is until rather recently black bears in the Cowboy State have never enjoyed a high level of respect as a game animal. Although bears were classified as a game animal on national forest and other federal lands as early as 1903 they remained classified as predators in other areas of the state until around 1930. For years during this period bears could be hunted anytime with no limit, and resident and non-resident hunters could take multiple bears well into the 1940s. As late as 1961 black bears were still classified as a game animal or predator depending upon the area and were not classified as a big game animal statewide until 1967. The limit of one bear per year was finally set around 1988.
Another factor is Wyoming has always been considered one of the west’s premier elk hunting states and is also noted for its mule and whitetail deer, as it is today. As a consequence black bears have always been low on the target list among the majority of resident hunters while big-game outfitters have primarily catered to non-resident hunters wanting horns and antlers, offering bears as a secondary possibility or option. Spring bear hunts are a tad more popular but compared to other western states offering spring and fall hunt opportunities the overall take remains comparatively low.
Wyoming’s relationship and management history with black bears is not usual in the west but a great deal has changed. The first ever black bear management plan was written in 1994, was revised in 1997 and is periodically revisited with the ultimate goal of sustaining population objectives. Since 1994 the use of bait has been eliminated or more highly regulated in several management units, including all designated wilderness areas on federal lands and harvest quotas were established to more closely regulate female mortalities. Once the female harvest quota has been reached in a specific hunt area that area is closed to hunting.
Today, Wyoming perhaps some of most under-utilized black bear hunting opportunities in the Rocky Mountain west. That might change as the word gets out but at present hunters looking to get away from the crowds and hunt bears that have seen less hunting pressure compared to some other western states surrounded by some of the most scenic territory in country might want to give the Cowboy State a look.
But there are other reasons. Although Wyoming Game and Fish Department is reluctant to put a number on the bear population and is currently conducting a study that should provide more accurate data it is known numbers have steady increased based on the traditional method of calculating population trends by harvest data. Harvest figures have gone from 150 a few decades ago to more than 300 and 486 in 2019, 209 during the fall and 277 during the spring, according to preliminary figures available from the WGFD. Neighboring Montana is reportedly home to 9,000- to 17,000 black bear and Idaho to the west upwards of 25,000 by most estimates. Considering the amount of suitable habitat, more than 180,000 acres and lack of traditional hunting pressure the black bear population in the Cowboy State could be in the same neighborhood.
And of course there is plenty of room to hunt bears. Wyoming covers 90,000 square miles, the 10th largest state in the country. Nearly half that area, some 48-percent is under federal management in the form of BLM land and wildlife refuges. There are also eight national forests covering just under 14,500 square miles. Historically, the northwest corner of the state around Yellowstone National Park offers some of the best bear hunting opportunities on the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton NF. Currently, some of the highest bear densities are found on the Bighorn NF west of Sheridan where it has been proposed to increase the annual bear limit. Bear densities are generally lower on the Medicine Bow NF in the southeast and its associated mountain ranges but the area still offers some prime hunting. The same is true on the Wasatch-Cache NF in the southwest.
Wyoming is also a prime destination for hunters looking for colored bears. Colors range from chocolate to cinnamon to blonde and depending on the area can run as high as 20 to 40 percent, especially on the more open, southern landscapes.
Estimated Black Bear Population: 10,000-20,000 +/-
Areas Open To Hunting: Generally statewide except national parks other state and federal properties. Non-resident hunters must use the services of guides in designated wilderness areas.
Spring Season/Dates: Yes. Special Archery-April 15-30 or May 1-14 depending on hunt areas;
General-April 15-June 7, April 15-May 31, May 15-June 15 or May 1-June 15, depending on hunt unit.
Fall Season/Dates: Yes. August 15-Novemner 15 or September 1-October 31, depending on hunt area.
Annual Bag Limit: One Bear. Prohibited to take dependent young and females with dependent young at side. The taking of females is set by quota. Once the quota is reached the hunt area is closed to hunting.
Baiting Allowed: Yes, in most hunt areas.
Dogs Allowed: No.
Legal Weapons**: Bows with minimum 40 pound draw weight, crossbows with at least 90 pound draw weight, centerfire rifles at least .24 caliber and muzzleloaders at least .40 caliber.
License Fees/Availability: Resident Bear License-$47, Non-resident Bear License-$373, Resident Archery License-$16, Non-resident Archery License-$72. Required Conservation Stamp-$12. Bear licenses are available over the counter at WFGD headquarters in Cheyenne and regional offices and license agents statewide.
Color Phase Potential: Considered moderate to high depending upon location.
Contacts: Wyoming Game and Fish Department, (307)-777-4600, www.wgfd.wyo.gov.
Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, (307)-265-2376, www.wyoga.org.
**Other regulations may also apply.