A Primer on Safety in Bear Country
Have you ever hiked through the woods, looking over your shoulder, and wondered about the possible danger from bears?
Have you followed media reports about bear attacks and wondered why and how they happen?
Have you asked yourself whether bears are truly the ferocious predators that some portray them as, or simply wild animals defending themselves from invasive people?
For some insight into these and other questions, I urge you to read on!
Bears are a fascinating subject for many nature lovers, albeit one which is often shrouded in mystery and, unfortunately, a degree of myth and misinformation. In recent years, biologists have shed new light on bear behaviour and exploded several old myths and beliefs. Through this research, we now have a much better understanding of the potential threat that bears may pose to humans in specific situations.
Bears are highly intelligent and complex animals; the more we learn about them, the more we find that the broad generalizations of the past were not always accurate. On this page I'd like to provide some important tips about bear behaviour and how to maximize your safety when working or vacationing in bear country.
Important note: Be aware that this page is intended only as a quick guide, NOT a comprehensive review on safety in bear country. Like the bears themselves, this is a complex subject that requires some 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, unless you live in polar or sub-polar regions, it's the bear that 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! Many who live or work in bear country have heard this myth and often blindly repeat it. I suppose it is comforting to believe that bears, like some people, subscribe to the 'live and let live' philosophy. Of course, this is the classic anthropomorphic approach, in which we assume that wildlife shares human values, such as kindness, empathy, and respect for life. The truth is probably much simpler: black bears are wild animals whose primary goal is to feed, reproduce and survive in any way possible. If a bear 'lives and let lives' in a given situation, it is primarily because it is the safest action at that moment for the animal to protect itself, and not because it feels any particular obligation to spare a human life. 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 people with the intent to consume them. This has been documented extensively in the literature. Here are a couple of examples: between 1978 and 1991, five people were killed and eaten by black bears in two separate attacks in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. In 2005, a woman was killed by a predatory bear in another Ontario 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 which the victims narrowly escaped with their lives. The accounts of these tragic attacks are easily found through media reports and articles on the Internet, including 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 no documented cases (to my knowledge ) 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 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. 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 to your food. Generally, if the bear sees you as a valuable food source, this factor may outweigh the animal's natural fear of humans: there are many documented cases where this has occurred and a black bear has 'stepped over the line', so to speak.
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? I don't believe that any reasonable naturalist or scientist would say so! I have encountered at least a dozen black bears and am happy to say that none of them attempted to approach me, and most fled in the opposite direction. Most human-bear interactions end safely for both parties. More importantly, 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 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 angry wounded bear on your hands! Many experienced hunters will tell you that a single shot is often not enough to kill a moving bear. And perhaps more importantly, firearms are prohibited in most provincial and national parks in Canada, so this is really not an option for the majority of people.
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 within easy reach and 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 deep 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 the time to take the spray out of your pack and remove the packaging. Especially if you're like me and it takes you half an hour to remove sticky plastic packaging from some items! 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 I don't find them particularly loud or effective. However, a combination of bear bells and making noise yourself may work well.
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 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: both the research and the evidence in many fatal attacks tell us 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!). This is a key behavioural difference between black bears and 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 to save yourself. I carry a large hunting knife on my belt along with my bear spray. In recent years, several bear attack victims have saved themselves by repeatedly stabbing the bear. Bears are extremely strong and often are not easy to kill, but for the sake of saving your life, anything you can do is better than passively awaiting your fate.
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