While most hunters are prowling their permit applications, a hardy few are actually in the field this spring.
They're out for bear, the only Montana big-game animal that has both a fall and a spring season. And recent regulation changes may boost their success odds. Black bear season opens April 15.
"Some people are crazy about bear hunting," said Tony Jones of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. "They're not near as popular as deer and elk, but there's a few people who are real avid bear hunters."
The warm late-winter weather may lead to early emergence of the hibernating black bears. Low snowpacks should also help hunters get into the high country where bears lurk in early spring. And just in case, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has extended the spring bear hunting season an extra two weeks in some parts of southern Montana for 2010.
"When the season ended in May, people couldn't access the high country," said FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais. "The rule change allows some of that country to melt out."
Fall bears tend to be fatter, as they've been loading up for hibernation. Many hunters say fall bears taste better. But the spring hides are usually better quality, unless they've rubbed patches bare during their winter snooze.
After that long nap, most bears head for the first green grass they can find. Their digestive system has essentially shut down over the winter, and grass is the preferred kick-start to get things going again. They'll even avoid winter-killed animals for a couple of weeks until they've got their juices flowing.
Savvy hunters therefore head for the edge of the snow line, where the grass usually sprouts first. As the days lengthen, they'll shift to avalanche chutes and other places where bears might find carrion.
Stevensville bear hunter Fred Upchurch said Montana-style bear hunting is the most challenging in the lower 48 states. While other areas allow baiting or hunting with dogs, Montanans must rely on their personal strength and skill.
"There's a lot of bears out there, but they don't run in herds and you've got to cover a lot of ground and do a lot of glassing," Upchurch said. "And you've got to be a really good stalker. They say a bear doesn't have great eyesight, but he's got as good as you. His nose is what will give you away every time. And he can still hear."
Solitary bears are more likely to be males, while bears traveling in twos or threes can be yearlings or sows with juvenile cubs. It's illegal to take a cub of the year or a sow with cubs. But it can be hard to tell the size of a solo bear, especially at the distance you're likely to first see it.
"If you can see the feet, see the claws and stuff, that can help (gauge size)," Upchurch said. "If he looks like he's got attitude, if he runs into the middle of slides without a problem, he thinks he can take care of himself. Not like a little one sneaking around the edges."
The state's bigger black bears tend to live in the northwest, where berry crops are more abundant. The Bitterroot Valley has a strong population, but they tend to be smaller than their Flathead Valley cousins.
For hunters like Upchurch, the best thing about spring bear hunting is the excuse it provides to get into the hills. "It's a fun time being out there," he said. "One time, I saw one of the neatest sights. I watched two mountain lions chase a mule deer across a snow slide. It got away and they gave it up and started playing. It was just like a National Geographic show. It's a fun time to be out in the woods."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.