A September Bear attack, 2006

The following is a brief description of a bear attack while hunting in northern Wisconsin on Saturday, September 30, 2006.

I was grouse hunting with two of my English setters (Molly and Katie) in Polk County, Wisconsin. I had been hunting about three hours during the morning when I decided to hunt one of my favorite coverts nearby, one that I had hunted dozens of time over the years. The covert is roughly a quarter-section of clear-cut Aspen about 15 years old. We had been in the cutting for about 15 minutes when a grouse flushed wild and flew about 100 yards ahead. Both of my setters were in front of me following the bird. About 30 seconds later I heard a loud crashing sound to my one o'clock. I immediately thought the dogs had spooked a deer but as my eyes looked to the source of the sound I noticed a large black bear chasing my youngest (3-year old) setter, Katie. In a matter of seconds, the bear had overtaken my dog and was on top of her. I fired one shot well over the head of the bear, thinking that this would drive the bear off. (Over my 35+ years of grouse hunting, I've had a fair number of bear encounters in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and usually just the presence of myself and the dogs, no less waving hands and yelling, was always enough to drive the bear off.)

After firing the first shot, the bear reached down and grabbed Katie by the neck and dragged her another thirty yards. During this time I was yelling and waving my arms, and also running toward the bear. When I was approximately 10-12 yards away, I fired another shot over the head of the bear, not wanting to hit my dog in the process. The bear's reaction was to false charge me, covering about half the distance. It stared at me for a moment and then went back on top of my dog. I continued to close on the bear and when I was approximately five yards away the bear charged and knocked me to the ground. Falling backward, I used my left arm to prop myself up only to discover the bear's head over the tips of my boots. I held my shotgun (now empty) so the ends of the barrels were only 12 inches from the bear's face. With options limited, I whacked the bear on the side of the muzzle. Whacking the bear turned him back to where I had last seen my setter. The forest floor was covered with Bracken fern and Katie was nowhere in sight. I assumed she was seriously injured, possibly bleeding, and had crawled off.

I scrambled to my feet while fumbling to reload my 20 ga. side-by-side and locate my dog. The bear initially appeared to be visually searching for Katie but then appeared to pick up her sent. It began to quickly follow a scent, like a dog following a running pheasant, so I fired just over the top of its head. This appeared to do the trick; the bear immediately changed direction so I fired again over its head to keep it moving away.

For what seemed to be an eternity, I stood there yelling for Katie. She was nowhere to been seen. My heart sank. I began to think the worst. I looked down to see my other setter, Molly, standing to my right rear with a look of what the #$%@& is going on. A moment later I looked to my left and there stood Katie. No obvious blood or other trauma, just a slightly bewildered look on her face. I immediately checked her over more closely and noticed she had a small piece of hide missing and a single puncture wound on her left side. She didn't appear to have any further injuries.

I walked both dogs at heel out of the cover. When I arrived home, my wife noticed that Katie winced whenever Lisa would touch her side or chest. We immediately took her to the U of M Vet hospital to have her X-rayed to rule out broken rigs and punctured lungs. She had neither, but was deeply bruised. It took three weeks to heal. She was one lucky setter. My guess is that when the bear grabbed her by the neck, it did so by grabbing her beeper collar.

Immediately after the attack, I started to think that something was physically wrong with this bear. Because of its size, probably 350-400 lbs., and no cubs in the area, I surmise it was a male. Starving bears have been known to attack dogs and other pets, and occasionally humans, but nothing about this bear appeared to indicate that it was injured. I also don't consider this an attack on me directly. It was obvious to me that the bear was attacking my dog, not me, and only when I continued to persist in my actions to save my dog did the bear turn on me. So why the abnormal behavior from this particular bear?

I think it may have something to do with hunting bear in Wisconsin with dogs. Over the years while hunting grouse in Wisconsin, not Minnesota, I've had to avoid packs of dogs that are either being trained during the summer months (July 1 to August 31st) or being used to hunt bear during the hunting season. (Minnesota does not allow hunting bear with dogs.) It appears that the high frequency of dog/bear encounter is conditioning bear not to fear dogs or the humans that handle them. A number of bear-hunters I've talked with concur with this assessment. These bear-hunters frequently have dogs killed by bear. One bear-hunter I talked with this late grouse season in Wisconsin said his son was bitten by a bear while hunting, and that he also had a dog killed by a bear this year.

A related issue that may become more of a concern for grouse and woodcock hunters that use wide-ranging pointing dogs is the threat from wolves. From July 1st to August 31st, 2006, 25 dogs where reported killed by wolves in northern Wisconsin. It appears that the wolves are responding to and being conditioned by invading canines (dogs) in their territories. Bear dogs, hunting in packs, announce their presence in wolf territories by baying loudly. Some bear hunters have thought that placing bells on their dogs was a way to counteract these attacks. On the contrary, it may exacerbate the situation by drawing attention to the bear dogs, and placing at future risk grouse and woodcock dogs, especially those that have beeper collars. Perhaps shortening the training season, rather than eliminating the use of dogs to hunt bears, would help reduce bear and wolf attacks.

This sort of event my never happen to my dogs and me again, but I'm not so sure.

Hunting in the grouse woods has changed, at least for my canine companions and me.

Update: 13 Aug. 2008. I just received an email from a friend, Will Salo, in Duluth, MN reporting another bear attack on a dog. The dog belongs to a friend of his that lives on the outskirts of Duluth. The attack took place in the woods adjacent to his friend's home. The dog happens to be a litter mate male to my dog Katie that was attacked in 2006. The dog, Duke, lost an eye, had broken ribs, numberous puncture wounds, and several patches of skin missing. In 2006, Will's son was attacked by a bear while bow hunting deer from a tree stand near his father's home in the Duluth area.


The views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author, and the content is only provided for your enjoyment and information. All content appearing here is copyrighted by R.W. Peifer, 1997-2011. All rights reserved.