When Hunting's Gunfire Becomes a Dinner Bell

Jul 5, 2018

Ethologist Dr.Valerius Geist in British Columbia is the former program director of Environmental Sciences at U. Calgary, and he is known world-wide for his studies and writings about large game animals. Val recently sent me an e-mail about something that hunters should be aware of.

What prompted Val’s e-mail is that he had just received a newspaper article from Germany http://wolfeducationinternational.com/wolfe-am-hochstand-auf-der-lauer-wolfe-at-the-high-stand-in-wait/ reporting that German researchers, analyzing photographs of traps, animal feces, tracks, and other traces, found 60 wolf packs are now living across the country,13 more packs than a year ago. Overall, there are now between 150-160 adult wolves in Germany.

In Val’s research on wolves and their relationship with people, which I described in an earlier article, http://www.theoutdoorwire.com/features/230658 he found that in countries where most people don’t hunt with guns or own them – Siberia, India, Kazakhstan, etc.-- wolves are more likely to attack people. Whereas in North America, where firearms ownership is greater, when people fire shots toward wolves, typically they keep their distance.

The German article, however, reports something different.

German hunters are reporting that when they’re out in the woods, and they shoot a red deer, fallow deer, roe deer or wild boar, wolves immediately show up. It’s common knowledge that predators like wolves, coyotes, and bears will feed on the remains of game animals. However, in Germany the wolves don’t seem to want to wait until the downed animals have been dressed, they aggressively approach the carcass and the hunters.

A big difference between wolves in the wild in Germany, and wolves in the wild in North America is that in Germany it’s not legal to shoot wolves as they are an endangered species.  http://www.dw.com/en/germanys-wolf-population-on-the-rise-new-data-shows/a-41503395 So, it’s likely that German wolves have come to realize that they can’t be fired on by hunters and so the sounds of gunfire are like a dinner bell to German wolves.

Val says “In Germany some hunters have given up hunting as they cannot lay claim to game…. For wolves this is very new, but shows where protection can lead to.”

Val has studied wolf behavior in North America, especially how wolves become habituated to people. http://www.vargfakta.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Geist-when-do-wolves-become-dangerous-to-humans-pt-1.pdf

So, he sent the German article to about a dozen friends and I, asking for their comments and he asked me to report on it. I also contacted some other people who are knowledgeable about animal behavior. According to Val, “This is the first report I have ever heard about wolves being drawn to hunter’s gunshots. However, that bears can and do attack hunters is definitely known in North America.” A number of those we contacted agree.

These are some of the responses.

Jim Low, a retired Alaskan game warden, says, “A gunshot on Kodiak Island attracts bears.  Many deer hunters have killed deer on Kodiak Island only to have a Kodiak brown bear show up and want to dine on venison.”

Joe Hosmer, former Pres. of the SCI Foundation, agrees. Joe says: “I have seen this black tail hunting on Kodiak Island. When a deer is shot the bears come running!  The hunter needs to give up the deer and move on,” unless you also have a bear license. 

A third confirmation of bears attacking hunters on Kodiak Island came from Alaska Wildlife Troopers Sergeant Shane Nicholson:

“I grew up in Kodiak and have spent many years hunting all over the island.  On more than one occasion, I have personally witnessed bear's coming to the sound of gunshots.  In one instance, I observed a bear come from approximately 1/2 mile away and arrive at my location, just as I was finishing loading deer meat into my pack.  It sat approximately 100 yards away until I departed the area and then moved in to the gut pile.  My dad has had similar experiences throughout the years. In talking with numerous hunters around Kodiak, many have experienced the same thing.”  

Tom Opre, filmmaker and producer of the “Eye of the Hunter” TV show, responded that “This is just what I hear about grizzlies in the Yellowstone and adjacent to the Bob Marshall (Clearwater Game Range) attacking hunters who have downed animals.”

Brett French in Idaho says http://www.idahostatesman.com/outdoors/hunting/article115389863.html  "Hunting in grizzly country requires precaution; gunshots can be ‘dinner bells’ to bears”

Carmen Purdy, Member of the Nature Trust and Habitat Conservation Fund in British Columbia https://www.e-know.ca/news/carmen-purdy-honoured-with-qdjm/ says: “Gunshots have been a dinner bell for grizzlies and black bears in the Kootenay district for some time now.”

Prof Charles Kay at Utah State University http://idahoforwildlife.com/Website%20articles/Website%20articles/Charles%20Kay/Bio/CKayBIO2005.pdf  agrees that bears can be attracted by sounds of gunshots to game animals that hunters have killed. And he says that as soon as the elk season starts, bears move out of Yellowstone National Park.

Jim Beers, former USFWS special agent, biologist and administrator, https://landandwaterusa.com/JimBeers.htm says that wolves and bears are not the only predators that can be attracted to the gunshots of hunters. He writes: “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; ‘Many years ago alligators seemed to constitute a growing danger to duck hunter’s ability to retrieve ducks and/or sending retrievers into the water.’  Before WWII alligators, were always something to watch for especially where and when their densities increased.  During WWII, densities increased because all the young men were in the military and the women weren’t buying luxury alligator items.

After WWII, as things got back to normal, duck hunters began to notice that alligators seemed to come to gunshots that they began associating with dead ducks laying about and dogs in the water.  Certain duck blinds that were used more than others seemed to have clusters of alligators around them more and more as the season progressed.  Some hunters even claimed that the simple noise and commotion of putting out decoys would attract alligators to the area in the morning. 

Wolves probably have much higher SAT scores that reptiles like alligators but that is irrelevant.  They each learn such things that importune humans in so many ways with little, other than imaginary, benefit and more just like grizzly bears and free-roaming buffalo.   

As a Siberian biologist once asked me as we ate dinner at a meeting in Brussels one afternoon decades ago, ‘Beers is it true that in America you have introduced wolves and that you protect them?’  I said, ‘That is true.’  He looked down at his plate, shook his head and said. ‘How did you ever win the Cold War?’”

One person contacted said that this was not happening in Africa, as there hunters can shoot predators. However, another person reported that in Africa if one fires a gun and a lion is nearby, it is possible that the lion will not run away, but will run toward the shooter.

Prof. Kaj Granlund at the University of Oslo in Norway, added a new dimension to the reports of predators after hunter’s game saying: “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. Other hunters told me about similar incidents.”

Val Geist adds that ravens are another potential aerial competitor for a kill in Germany. “According to Professor Michael Stubbe, after hearing a hunter's shot, they can quickly come to feast on the offal.”

And, Jim Shepherd, Outdoor Wire Editor and Chief reported: “When we’re shooting prairie dogs we almost always have hawks circling our area. The minute we stop shooting or appear to have stopped, down they come to gather up what we laughingly call ‘self-policing targets.’

Same thing happens occasionally when bird hunting in the South. I’ve actually had a hawk intercept a wounded dove on the opening day of dove season as it flew out of our dove field.

Just crazy things at the time- but they are a patterned response; like hearing  coyotes barking after you’ve just gutted a deer late in the day. They’re triangulating your location - and it’s pretty obvious that as soon as you’re gone, they’re in. In fact, we’ve been known to leave (meaning a couple of hundred yards away) gut piles and mount IR or Night Vision on our rifles and hang around to see what shows up. I’ve taken hogs and coyotes that way. Since they’re feral, it’s legit to do that.”

So, the bottom line for hunters is that when you’re in the field and shoot a game animal, if you happen to be in territory where predators live, you may have an unwanted visitor come to check to see if dinner is available.  Val 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 female grizzly near Radium Hotsprings British Columbia after taking pictures of a large bull elk they has just killed. http://lmtribune.com/nation/world/grizzly-hunters-mauled-grizzly-sow-kills-pair-who-were-packing/article_3eecf498-ead3-5462-937a-22d5df7c8d69.html “The grizzly may have been attracted by the shot and attacked instantly to kill two men who could not even use their rifles!” Val said.

A second bear attack incident 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.” https://books.google.ca/books?id=pGmqw_e6T2oC&pg=PA63&lpg=PA63&dq=two+elk+hunters+killed+by+grizzly+bear+in+British+Columbia&source=bl&ots=

Based on the information that has come in, Val Geist has some important advice on what  you should do as an informed hunter in grizzly country where bears have learned to follow gunfire.   

“First, never hunt alone, and be very watchful in bear or wolf country. You will NOT hear a determined bear approaching. I’ve been stalked by a huge black bear and he came silent as a shadow. The hunters who were killed at their elk kills never had a chance to use their guns! The hunters were surprised and killed at once by a bear who zeroed in on them. How come? Bears attracted to gunfire in anticipation of a rich 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. And if the black bear did not hear the approach, do you think a human hunter will? And that will be the fate of any hunter whose gunfire attracts grizzly or black bear.”

Second: “Mount a guard well off the kill and wait to see if a bear approaches. If one does, the rational response would be to kill it at once, because he has learned the wrong lesson and will come again if rewarded. But, then what does one do about laws?” It is possible that a warning shot would drive a bear away, but don’t count on that as 100% of the time.

Third: Hunters approaching a kill or a blood-trail with their single tracking dog are in danger of losing their dog to a wolf pack. In 2016 in Wisconsin, wolves killed 41 hunting dogs. https://www.wpr.org/record-number-hunting-dogs-killed-wolves-2016

Fourth: “The German example teaches what zealous protectionism results in. Remember, this is but the beginning. It will develop further as wolves confront hunters over the kill. That will come as certain as amen after a prayer.  I was informed about this at the wolf symposium in Wettringen I attended. And I blew up! The wolf population in Europe is growing exponentially without controls being applied, due to prohibitions of European Union legislation. Wolves are free to do anything they like. No restrictions on them whatsoever. And the punishment for killing a wolf is draconian!

If North American wolves learn to do as German wolves do, expect trouble. It seems logical that the only way to retain your kill is to shoot the wolves. However, that can trigger an attack. And one thing one cannot do: shoot oneself out of a determined big wolf pack with a conventional hunting rifle: the scope is too big, the approaching target too erratic to hit except at 10 paces or less – and I speak from experience having been attacked by wolves twice. Also, 5 shots will not carry you far with ten wolves! In short, the German experience is something to learn from.”

So, when you are in the field hunting keep your eyes and ears open and your firearm loaded and available, just in case some hungry critters decide that your gunshots are a dinner bell. And, if you follow Jim Shepherd’s lead, if you do bag a nice buck or doe, after all the dressing out of the carcass is done, hang around for a while and see what shows up. Wild boar can be awfully tasty, and if it comes to you rather than you pursuing it, consider that a gift of the wild.

-- James Swan, PhD.