Safety in Bear Country - Joseph Verdirame Nature Photography
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A Primer on Safety in Bear Country


I feel it is important to share what we know about bear behaviour and the potential threat that bears may pose to humans.   Bears are highly intelligent and complex animals; the more we learn about them, the more we find that the broad generalizations of the past are not always accurate.  On this page I'd like to provide some important tips about bear behaviour and how to maximize your safety around bears.  


Please note:  This summary is intended to be a quick guide and is not a comprehensive review on safety in bear country.  Like the bears themselves, this is a complex subject that requires significant preparation.  Much of the information I present here is drawn from the seminal work of Dr. Stephen Herrero in his book "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" (1985, 2002) and from his more recent work with other researchers, "Fatal attacks by American black bear on people: 1900–2009"  (The Journal of Wildlife Management Volume 75, Issue 3, pages 596–603, April 2011).  Dr. Herrero is considered a leading expert on bear attacks and bear behaviour and has done ground-breaking research in this area; I highly recommend reading both of these publications. 


1.  Black Bear (Ursus americanus)


The black bear is the most widely distributed of our bear species in North America.  As such, it's the bear you are most likely to encounter in the wild.  Let's begin by discussing some myths that I often hear about black bears.


Myth #1:  If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone.


Don't bet your life on it!  Fortunately, it is true that in most encounters, black bears will leave the instant they sense a human being.  In some cases, they will approach people out of curiosity.  However, in extremely rare instances, they will attack and eat people, although this is not publicized by authorities. Yes, you read that correctly:  between 1978 and 1991, for example, 5 people were killed and eaten by black bears in two separate attacks in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park alone!   In 2005, a woman was killed by a predatory bear in another provincial park while canoe-camping with her husband.  Several dozen similar fatalities resulting from predatory behaviour have been documented across North America over the past century.  In addition to the fatalities, there have been many predatory attacks in Ontario and elsewhere in which the victims narrowly escaped with their lives.  The accounts of these tragic attacks are easily searchable on the Internet, as well as in Dr. Herrero's work.   Remember, therefore, that our smallest and most common bear is still potentially lethal!   In recent research, Stephen Herrero and other scientists have documented that most cases of injury and death to humans by black bears can be attributed to predatory adult males.  


Myth #2:   A black bear mother with cubs is the most dangerous bear.


This is false.  See Myth #1 above:  it's the adult males you have to watch out for.  Black bear mothers most often send their cubs up a tree or other cover when they are disturbed, and will rarely attack people in defense of their cubs.  It is possible they will bluff charge to frighten people away, but there are almost no known cases of serious injury or death inflicted on people by a black bear sow in defense of cubs.


Myth #3:  Black bears are more afraid of you than you are of them.


Yes, sometimes, but not as often as most people would like to believe.  Think of some black bears as the schoolyard bullies of our forests. They are all about intimidation and what they think they can get away with.  If the bear is a starving adult male and sizes you up as a low-risk meal, you could be in serious trouble. And if you startle a hungry bear feeding on its prey and it feels you are threatening its catch of the day/week/month, be on your guard.  Bears habituated to human presence by frequenting campgrounds or garbage dumps may also pose a threat to your safety simply because they won't mind approaching you or scaring you away to get at your food.  Generally, if the bear sees you as a valuable food source, I can almost guarantee you that it will not fear you as much as you think!


How to Stay (relatively) Safe in Bear Country


Given what we now know about black bears, should you be afraid to go into the woods?   No, of course not!  Happily, most human-bear interactions end safely for both parties.  And there are steps that every person working and living in bear country can take that will go a long way to avoiding trouble with black bears:


1)  Carry bear spray and know how to use it.

Although the debate continues, most researchers have concluded that bear spray is much more effective in a bear encounter than a firearm.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the extreme difficulty of stopping a charging bear in its tracks with a gun.  To do so, you would have to be:  a)  very calm under extreme duress; b) an excellent and experienced hunter; and, c) know exactly where to place your shots to kill the animal.  Anything short of that, and you're likely to end up with an angrier, wounded bear attacking you!  Many hunters will tell you that a single shot is usually not enough to kill a moving bear.  Perhaps more importantly, firearms are prohibited in most provincial and national parks, so this is really not an option for most of us.  If you check out one of my profile pics on this site, you will note that I am carrying bear spray in a green belt holster.   It is there ready to use.  Please don't be like the well-meaning gentleman I once encountered in the Rocky Mountains who had a brand-new can of bear spray still wrapped in plastic packaging from the store,  and buried inside his backpack!  In the very rare event you will need to use bear spray to discourage a bold or predatory black bear, chances are you will NOT have time to take the spray out of your pack and remove the packaging.  Keep in mind that the bear may not be polite enough to wait while you do so.


2) Make noise

To avoid surprising a bear, and to ensure it always has an escape route if you are approaching, it is best to talk, sing, whistle or periodically call out as you hike along.  I have tried the 'bear bells' that are available in many outdoor stores and personally do not find them particularly loud or effective.  However, a combination of bear bells and making noise yourself may be ideal.


3)  Travel in groups whenever possible.

Remember what I said about schoolyard bullies?   For whatever reason, black bears generally don't like to attack groups of people.  They may feel that the risk to their own safety is too high. There have been exceptions, but overall it seems that you're safer in a group.


4)  Never run from a bear (or turn your back to it)

To make a long story short:  running from a bear may incite its predatory instinct and/or its curiosity, in which case it is highly likely the bear will chase you.  If it chases you, you will lose the race.   If you encounter a bear and it sees you, generally your best course of action is to raise your arms to make yourself look bigger and slowly back away while speaking to the bear.  Do not maintain eye contact, however, as this may be seen as a challenge.  Chances are very good the bear will feel it has the choice to back down and leave  (see my personal encounter below).


5)  The most important rule:  Do not play dead!

This one may surprise you, but research (and the tragedy of many unfortunate victims) has shown that a predatory black bear will NOT stop its attack if you lie down and try to play dead...you will only make it easier for the bear to consume its meal (you!).  In this way, black bears are quite different from grizzlies.  If a black bear makes contact with you and is attacking, you have no choice but to fight for your life with whatever you have at hand!  Poke its eyes, hit it with a rock, yell at it; in short, do whatever you can.  I carry a large hunting knife on my belt along with my bear spray.  At least a couple of bear attack victims in recent years have saved themselves by repeatedly stabbing the bear.  Bears are extremely strong and are not easy to kill, but for the sake of saving your life, anything is worth a try!


6)  The Obvious:  Do not approach bears.

A simple rule, but one that very often gets broken, especially by some photographers and curious campers or hikers.  As docile as a bear may seem, remember that it is capable of racehorse speed.  It can run faster than you, climb trees better than you, and even follow you into the water.  By the way, biologists say it is not true that bears are slower while running downhill.   I have not personally verified this and I don't think I am going to.  Don't give a bear any reason to feel threatened!


7)  The Obvious:  Don't attract bears with food

I think most people who camp and travel in bear country now know that bears seek food practically on a 24/7 basis, and that they should not leave food anywhere near their tent or campsite.  Similarly, cleaning fish or keeping food scraps in your campsite after a meal is simply asking for trouble.  Needless to say, it is not a great idea to be wandering about the woods with any kind of strong food odours on your person, unless you enjoy being bait!



Black bear portrait

How will I know if I'm dealing with a predatory black bear?


Perhaps the best way for me to answer this question is to tell the story of my very first black bear encounter.  In 1985, as a university student, I got a summer job in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park.  I was tasked with hiking through remote areas of the Park, equipped only with a compass and a topographic map; none of us had ever heard of a 'GPS' in those days.  In the early afternoon of a sunny mid-summer day, I climbed a small hill.  As I did so, the midday silence of the forest was shattered by what I can only describe as a very load roar.  There was little doubt in mind as to what I'd heard, and the sound was quite close to me.  As so often happens, however, people go into denial.   I remember taking a quick mental inventory of possible sources for that sound, as my heart raced in my chest...let's see, doesn't sound like a moose...wolves don't roar, they growl...bear!!!  I couldn't see the bear in the thick foliage (later I realized there were berry bushes around...surprise, surprise) so I clambered quickly to the top of a large nearby boulder and spoke to the bear.  Yes, as silly as it sounds, I talked to this unseen bear:   "It's just me.  I'm right here", etc.  That was all I could think of!   After what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely 30 seconds, I heard a crashing in the bushes and then...silence.  The bear had left.  I then faced a 45-minute hike through the woods to return to my car, during which I imagined a bear behind every tree!


Here's my own reconstruction of what may have happened that day:  


1.  I was hiking without paying attention to my surroundings.  Entering an area of berry bushes in the summer is probably a great way to surprise a bear that is already there feeding!


2.  The surprised bear went into 'fight or flight' mode and roared its  displeasure (or perhaps its fear).   It stood still for a few moments as it decided whether it should investigate/attack the threat, or flee.


3.  On hearing my voice and identifying the source, and perhaps concluding that I did not present an immediate threat, the bear decided to leave me and come back to feed later.  Thank you, bear!


This is a good example of one of the most typical bear encounters, where a startled bear may appear to threaten you but is really most interested in getting away from you as quickly as possible.  Bears in these situations may actually go as far as to charge at you but nearly always stop short of contact; they may woof or roar; and they may slap the ground with their paws, among other threat displays.  These bears MAY make contact with you, often with the swipe of a paw or a quick bite, but it is not very likely.


Had my bear been in 'predatory mode', I would probably have had no warning of its presence, no roaring or woofing, no bluff charge, etc.  A predatory bear, by all accounts, will simply stalk you silently and, having decided that you are a low-risk meal, will proceed to knock you to the ground and commence its meal.  Therefore, it seems we need to be most wary of bears that appear to be following silently and not showing any fear of humans.  


Grizzly in berry patch

2.  Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)


Sadly, grizzly bears today occupy only very limited home ranges due to the loss of habitat and over hunting in the past.   In Canada they are generally found only in our western provinces, and even there, they are generally more rare than black bears.  Nevertheless, each year there are numerous cases of encounters with grizzlies that result in death or serious injury to people, as more people take to our wilderness parks and recreational areas.  Scientists tell us that grizzlies evolved in very different circumstances than black bears. They once roamed through most of North America, including the vast plains.  As a result, their sense of  'personal space' may be in the order of hundreds of metres (yards), as compared to black bears.   It is not surprising therefore, when we hear of attacks in which a seemingly peaceful, grazing grizzly bear felt threatened enough to charge and maul hikers standing 300 metres away!  Though physical contact even in these cases is rare, the sheer size and strength of a grizzly bear could lead to serious injury or death in the event of a mauling.


Among the many differences between black bears and grizzlies, there is one key behavioural trait that we need to be most aware of to protect ourselves:  unlike the black bear, a grizzly bear mother may not hesitate to charge at any human that it perceives as a possible threat to its cubs, even if the people think they are at a 'safe' distance.   Not only will grizzly bear mothers charge, they may well make contact with and maul people in an effort to eliminate the threat to their cubs.


The safety rules I outlined above for black bears generally apply to grizzlies, with the following important distinctions:


1.  Maintain as much distance as possible from a grizzly bear, even if it does not appear threatening.

As noted above, grizzlies like their personal space, and may feel threatened by humans even if we are a few hundred metres away from them.  Although a grizzly may initially seem to tolerate your presence, this can change at a moment's notice (actually, often without any signs of impending trouble).


2.  If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, you must play dead.

Rather than fight back, you should assume the fetal position to protect your vital organs as much as possible, while protecting your head and neck with your hands and arms. The experience of unfortunate grizzly attack victims has shown that fighting back with a grizzly will usually only prolong the agony and perhaps the severity of the attack.  


Do Grizzlies Prey on Humans?


There are tragic examples in the literature and in recent history of both grizzly and the closely-related brown bears feeding on humans.  One of the best-known cases is the tragic death of Timothy Treadwell and his partner Amie Huguenard in Alaska in 2003.   Generally, however, grizzly bears do not appear to view humans as prey to the same extent as some adult male black bears.   A grizzly bear's main interest is to keep people away, either from itself, its prey, or its cubs.  Although they can be quite ferocious in charging and attacking, grizzlies generally do not view people as a preferred food source (fortunately for us!).  


Also, it's important to note that, like black bears, grizzlies have rarely attacked groups of hikers or people on horseback - so once again, there is some safety in numbers!  Parks Canada, for example, recommends that on some wilderness trails, you travel in groups of four or more, for increased safety.

3.  Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)


Polar bears have been known to stalk and attack humans as prey.  I suppose from a polar bear's perspective, most of us would make a fine meal, as would a seal or walrus, minus the blubber.  


Since I have no experience with these bears, I will not make suggestions or recommendations, other than to mention that experienced biologists and guides rarely venture into polar bear country without firearms and training in how to use them.   I do realize this seems to contradict the advice about not using firearms - suffice it to say, the behaviour of polar bears, and the environment and circumstances in which they may be encountered, warrants the use of all possible tools.  These include bear spray, electric fencing for campsites, and even firearms as a last resort.

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