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Bear Encounters — Keeping Yourself, and Bears, Safe

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We were deeply saddened to read early this month about a fatal bear encounter that occurred in Colorado and the ensuing fatal response. Though most bear encounters are nonviolent, this one was truly tragic. A woman was killed, and a 10-year-old female bear and her two yearling cubs found nearby were later killed. We must learn from these terrible situations. Fortunately, there are ways we can keep ourselves and bears safe from incidents like this. 

Everything about this situation was tragic. A woman’s life was of course cut short, but so were the bears’ lives. While we wish the situation had been handled differently, and some other nonlethal solution had been pursued, encounters like this are difficult situations, without easy solutions.

Luckily, encounters like this where bears kill humans are extremely rare. In Colorado, for example, before the recent incident, there had only been three other fatal encounters in the last 50 years: in 1971, 1993, and 2009. The chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million, according to the National Park Service. You are more likely to be killed by a bee than a bear, and way more likely to be killed by another human than by either bear or bee. 

And when bear encounters do happen, they are most often nonviolent. Bears are as afraid of you as you are of them, and bears want to avoid humans at all costs. The most common outcome of a bear encounter is that the bear flees. 

In terms of keeping both humans and bears safe, education is the best solution, including educating humans as to how to avoid close encounters with bears, and how to de-escalate when those encounters occur. This knowledge will significantly decrease the chance that you are involved in a potentially dangerous situation, and help you remain composed and safe should you have a close encounter. 

Avoid Encounters: Give Bears Space 
  • Above all else, the single most important thing you can do to keep yourself, and the bears, safe, is to avoid them altogether. Again, bears do not want to encounter you either! Always research local bear safety information online and at the nearest park visitor center before your hike into their territory begins. Also consider the timing of your adventure; the season can affect the potential for dangerous encounters, such as breeding season, or when mothers have young cubs to protect. 
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. Keep an eye out for any signs that bears may be nearby.
  • Make noise as you are traveling by talking, singing, or even playing music. Bears won’t seek you out; they will move away from you. Close encounters only happen when you surprise bears.
  • Travel in groups of three or more people if possible. Groups are noticeable to bears at a greater distance, and are more intimidating. Of the people injured by bears in Yellowstone National Park since 1970, 91% were hiking alone or with only one other person.
  • If you are walking with one or more dogs, keep them leashed at all times. In the event of an encounter with a bear, do not unleash them; keep them close to you.
  • Bears have a powerful sense of smell, so minimize scents including food, deodorant, and even chewing gum. Keep your food in sealable plastic containers, and keep it in your car, or if that isn’t possible, double-bag your food and if you are camping, hang it 14 feet above the ground and at least 100 yards from your tents. Leftovers, dirty dishes, and even food wrappers all carry scents, so seal those off as well. 
Be Prepared: Carry Bear Spray

Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent, and should only be used when you’re in imminent danger. Its main ingredient is Capsaicin, an active component in chili peppers, and causes significant irritation to the mouth, nose, eyes, nasal passage, throat and lungs. That said, the alternative may be death, for you and the bear. 

In a 2008 study by Smith and Herrero, bear spray was found to be 92% effective in deterring bear attacks between 1985 and 2006. 98% of people carrying bear spray who got into close encounters with bears were uninjured, and the bears lived on as well. 

It is also worth stressing that bear spray is more effective than firearms. If you encounter a bear, and want to survive, you are better off using bear spray than a firearm. Using a firearm may worsen the situation, increase aggression, and create a false sense of security when avoidance should be prioritized.

You can buy bear spray online or at stores that sell athletic or outdoor gear, such as REI, Walmart, or Home Depot. 

Know Your Bears, and Their Behaviors

Different bear species have different personalities. Accordingly, each requires a slightly different approach when dealing with them. In North America, there are three bear species: black bears, brown bears (including the grizzly bears and Kodiak bears), and polar bears. 

If you live in an area with a native bear population, get to know which bears live there. If you are visiting a location, get to know the local bear population as well.

Polar bears are easy to identify due to their white fur, but black and brown bears can be more challenging to differentiate, as black bears can have brown coats. The most telling difference is that brown bears are generally 1.5 to two times larger than black bears of the same age and gender. Kodiak bears are members of a unique subspecies of the brown bear who live exclusively on the islands in Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago. Brown bears also have a hump around their shoulders that black bears do not have. 

Dogs and Bears - A Dangerous Combination

When violent encounters occur between humans and bears, unleashed dogs are often (unwittingly) to blame. One study found that more than half of all human bear encounters involved dogs.

Dogs, unless they're members of a very particular type of trained dog (referred to as bear dogs), will not keep you safe in a bear encounter. In fact, what often happens is that dogs get frightened or excited and act aggressively, which frightens the bear, who then acts out defensively. In other situations, the human, fearing for the safety of the dog, tries to intercede and ends up charging a bear.

Luckily, there is a solution that will help protect you, your dog, and wild bears. Always keep your dog leashed if you are hiking in bear territory. It’s a sacrifice that even your dog is happy to make to ensure that everyone stays safe.

Bear Encounters

If you see a bear in the distance, do not approach. In doing so, you endanger not only yourself, but also the bear. Ideally, you should turn around and return from where you came from. If this is impossible, back away, wait 20 or 30 minutes, take a significant detour, and give the bear a very wide berth. As you travel away, make noise to let the bear know that you are moving away. Doing this allows the bear to keep out of your path. 

Should you end up in close proximity to a bear, remain calm, and stay together if you are in a group. Pick up any small children or small dogs immediately. Speak to the bear in a calm, reassuring tone, so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Project confidence. Back away from the bear slowly, keeping your eyes on the bear. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. A bear may become predatory if you do not stand your ground. If a bear approaches you and gets within 20 or so feet of you, consider using your bear spray to deter further encroachment.

  • Do NOT run. Bears can run as fast as a horse, and may be motivated to chase you if you do run. Never, ever, run from a bear.
  • Do NOT play dead until a bear has made physical contact with you. Even if a bear has charged you, stand tall and strong. There is a good chance the charge is a bluff.
  • Do NOT attempt to climb a tree. Bears can climb trees too, and this may provoke them.
  • Do NOT give bears any of your food, or allow them to access any of your food. This will make matters worse.
  • Do NOT make imitation bear sounds, or high-pitched squeals. 

The National Park Service differentiates between two different types of bear attacks: defensive attacks and predatory attacks. 

Predatory bear behavior is extremely unlikely. Still, bears’ top priorities — as they would be for humans — are protecting themselves, their cubs, their food, and their homes. If bears feel extremely threatened, they may resort to defending themselves.

Bears who feel threatened may “act” aggressively with the intent of avoiding a physical confrontation. They may stand on their hind legs, show their teeth, lay their ears back, swat the ground with their paws, snort, or “bluff charge” you to intimidate you. 

In this situation, the bear still does not want to fight you. The bear is afraid, and trying to avoid conflict by letting you know you are too close; the main priority is self defense and the protection of family, not hurting you. Remain still and calm, speak in a strong but appeasing voice, and continue backing away. Be ready to use your bear spray. 

Continue to attempt to de-escalate per the above instructions. 

Predatory Attacks

Brown Bears

Brown bears, or grizzly bears, are more aggressive than black bears, and more difficult to discourage. If you have stood your ground, and the grizzly begins to attack, play dead. Lay flat on your stomach with your hands protecting your neck, spreading your elbows so the bear cannot roll you over. Or curl into the fetal position. Generally, once the bear believes you are dominated, no longer a threat, they will leave. Remain on the ground for 20 to 30 minutes, even if you think the bear has left. 

Black Bears

Whereas the best response to a brown bear is to be as passive as possible, the best way to react to a black bear is to be bold and aggressive. Make yourself as big as possible. Speak loudly and clearly at the bear (do not scream wildly). Stamp your feet and take a step toward the bear. Threaten the bear with a stick or something nearby. Do not play dead except as a last case scenario. 

Polar Bears

You do not want to encounter a polar bear. They are the largest species of bear in the world. In addition, since they are not used to being in the proximity of humans, they are more likely to view humans as prey. You are unlikely to defeat a polar bear by either fighting back or playing dead. Your best defense is avoiding them in the first place, which is pretty easy to do as they are only found in the most northern polar regions of Canada, Alaska, Russia, and all of Greenland. Polar bear attacks are extremely uncommon. There are, on average, one to three a year, anywhere on Earth. If there is any possibility you will encounter a polar bear, be sure to pack bear spray, and signal flares are also recommended. Polar bears are very brave, very tough beings. But screaming fireballs tend to deter them. 

Hopefully, you will never need to remember this information, but we hope it serves you well if you do. Please share this information with anyone you know who hikes in bear country.

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