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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 ferocious predators, or simply wild animals defending themselves from invasive people?

For some insight into these and other questions, I encourage you to read on.

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.

Bears are a fascinating subject for many nature lovers, albeit one which is often shrouded in mystery and, unfortunately, a great deal 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 our past generalizations about bear behaviour were not always accurate.  In fact, you may be surprised by how wrong some of those assumptions are! 

Disclaimer:  Be aware that this page is intended only as a quick guide, NOT a comprehensive review on safety in bear country.  This is a somewhat 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 conducted 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 decides to  'live and let live' in an encounter with people, for instance, it is primarily because the bear has decided that a physical confrontation could be too risky.  In other words, the bear is acting in the interest of its own self-preservation, 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 just 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.  Dozens of similar fatalities resulting from the predatory behaviour of black bears have been documented across North America over the past century.  In addition to the fatalities, there have been many more predatory attacks in which the victims narrowly escaped with their lives.  The accounts of these tragic attacks are easily found in 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!  Some of the recent work by Stephen Herrero and other scientists has shown 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 male bears (boars) that in rare cases may prey on humans.  In fact, black bear mothers (sows) 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.    At times, black bears will exercise intimidation if they think they can get away with it.  If the bear is a starving adult male and sizes you up as a low-risk meal, you could be in serious trouble.  Most often, however, we find that 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!  Over the years, I have encountered at least two dozen bears and am happy to say that none of them attempted to approach me, and most fled in the opposite direction.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of human-bear interactions end safely for both parties.  In addition, 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 shot to kill the animal.  In most cases, you would likely be facing a wounded animal that is still quite capable of injuring or killing you.  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 not an option available to everyone.

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 that 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. 

In a recent conversation with an experienced hunter and guide, it was pointed out to me that in addition to carrying bear spray, an air horn can be useful in discouraging bears that will not move away.   Air horns are available from most sporting goods and boating retailers in a variety of sizes, many of which can be easily carried on your person.  In fact, an air horn could be a 'first line of defence', with bear spray being deployed only if the air horn has not frightened the bear away.  Of course, only you can decide which approach and which tools you are most comfortable with.

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.

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 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

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 (well, perhaps it was really more of a moan than a roar, but you get the picture).  There was little doubt in my mind as to what I'd heard, and the sound was closer to me than I liked.  As often happens in unexpected situations, however, people go into denial.  I know I did.  I remember taking a quick mental inventory of possible sources for that sound, as my heart raced in my chest, trying to rule out what I knew must be the case:  "let's see, it doesn't sound like a moose or a wolf, so what does that leave?  A bear!!!"  Unfortunately, I couldn't see the bear in the thick foliage, which seemed to only increase my anxiety.  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!"  Nothing else really came to mind in that instant.  After what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely only a few seconds, I heard the sound of a large animal crashing through the bushes, followed by dead silence.  The bear had left, thankfully!  Or was it a good thing?  You see, 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 may already be feeding there.  It's no surprise that the bear was unhappy with me!

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, roar and/or slap the ground with their paws, among other threat displays.  A bear in this situation 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', it's likely I would have had no warning of its presence, no vocalizations, and no bluff charge.  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 Canada they are generally found only in British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.    Their numbers in BC and Alberta are relatively low compared to the black bear population.  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 prairies and extensive alpine meadows.  Having evolved for millennia in wide open spaces, their sense of  'personal space' may be in the order of hundreds of metres (yards), compared to black bears who prefer to inhabit forests and may allow humans to approach closer.  This may explain the many cases of attacks in which a seemingly peaceful, grazing grizzly bear felt threatened enough to charge and maul hikers at a distance of 200 metres or more!  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.  This generally does not occur with black bears.  Of 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 people think they are at a safe distance.   Not only may grizzly bear mothers charge, they may well make contact with and maul people in an effort to eliminate the perceived 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, a grizzly's sense of personal space extends far beyond that of black bears, and they 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 should generally 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.  There are extremely rare exceptions to this rule, where a grizzly attacks silently and appears to be in predatory mode much like a black bear (see below).

Do Grizzlies Prey on Humans?

There are a few tragic examples in the literature and in recent history of grizzly bears feeding on humans.  One of the most high-profile incidents occurred in the summer of 1967 in Glacier National Park in the United States, in which two young women lost their lives in two separate grizzly bear attacks on the same night.   The odds against this seemed astronomical.  The tragedy was an eye-opener for wildlife experts and parks managers; it resulted in dramatic changes being made to the management of bears in the North American parks, including education for recreationists and the proper management of garbage in parks.  Yet another well-known case was the tragic death of Timothy Treadwell and his partner Amie Huguenard in Alaska in 2003.   More recently, on July 31, 2019, a British Columbia man was almost killed by a grizzly in apparent predatory mode on the BC mainland just east of Vancouver Island.  The bear knocked him off his bicycle and proceeded to feed on him, first attacking his abdomen and then turning to the flesh on his thigh, biting him right down to the bone.  The man saved himself by stabbing the bear in the neck with a pen knife, at which point it left him.  He then had to make his way for several kilometres with life-threatening injuries to a construction camp where first aid was rendered.

Aside from such very rare episodes, however, grizzly bears generally do not appear to view humans as prey.  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)

It is widely believed that polar bears 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.   That said, recent research (2017) by Jim Wilder, a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, suggests that the 'man-eating polar bear' may be more of a myth.  Wilder reviewed all known cases of polar bear attacks and found that almost two-thirds of the fatal attacks on humans were carried out by young adult bears (mostly male) who were beginning to starve.  His conclusion was that most well-fed polar bears do not need to hunt humans as prey.  Nevertheless, perhaps it would be fair to speculate that as climate changes continues to cause the melting of sea ice and diminish hunting opportunities for polar bears, humans should continue to be cautious around this very powerful predator.

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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