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Bear In Mind: The Sorts of Things You Should Know for Successful and Respectful Encounters with Bears

A frequently visited shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont was closed recently for an extended period due to reports of encounters with a seemingly fearless and aggressive bear. After enough accounts from hikers and campers, game wardens from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department had little choice but to find the bear and euthanize it–always an unfortunate outcome. The following article, written by Alaskan adventurers and guides, Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett, and originally featured as part of the Salsa Cycles storysite “Ring of Fire” shares information that can help you identify problematic situations, and prevent unwanted encounters or consequences.

Words & Photos by Bjorn Olson

Bears are intelligent animals. A bear’s mannerisms are highly individual and may change with the day, through the seasons, and over the course of their lives. These variables make them very interesting to observe, but also challenging to predict.

While there are no guarantees for what to expect from a bear encounter, one can become familiar with typical behavior and the signs of potential danger. A safe bear encounter is a very desirable experience, and occasions for a special opportunity to learn about bears firsthand.

Habituation: Bears that have regular contact with people tend to be less concerned about the presence of humans. They might not run away, and will often carry on with whatever they were doing in the first place. Bears will learn that humans are a source of food if they are allowed to get a taste, and this often leads to problematic relations.

Sow with Cubs: To unexpectedly come in close proximity to a mother with cubs is a leading cause of defensive attacks. A mother bear is on edge, and her greatest fear is predation of her cubs. Mothers prefer to keep their cubs far away from threats such as humans and predators.

Stress: A bear that is in a bad mood is far more dangerous than one that is content. Hunger, old age, injury, and tooth decay are common aggravators. Be especially cautious of bears that look malnourished or unhealthy.

Territoriality: Bears understand hierarchy, and they may choose to place themselves above you. Food sources, such as a carcass, fishing hole, or other foraging ground may lead to a territorial dispute.

Provocation: Harassing or inflicting injury onto a bear is not only disrespectful, but it could lead to an aggressive reaction.

Predation: For a bear to treat a human as prey is both highly feared and extremely unlikely. It is not outside the realm of possibility, but the majority of attacks are due to other underlying causes.

Color and size are far from infallible when it comes to identifying a bear.  Familiarize yourself with these other distinguishing features: 

BLACK BEAR:

  • Body Shape: Rump higher than shoulders, short claws
  • Head Shape: Profile straighter, snout often lighter in color, light spot above the eye, ears longer and pointier
  • Prints: Area between toes and pads arched, claw marks close to toes
  • Claws: Dark, short and strongly curved
  • Habitat: Generally drawn to rainforest, taiga, streams, and rivers
  • Behavior: Can climb trees. Does not bluff charge

BROWN/GRIZZLY BEAR:

    • Body Shape: Shoulders higher than rump, shoulder hump, long claws
    • Claws: Long, Light, less curved
    • Head Shape: Profile dished, ears shorter and rounder, Head broad
    • Prints: Area between toes and pad is straight, claw marks are farther from toes
    • Habitat: Generally open terrain in the taiga, rainforest, tundra or alpine, and wide river bars
    • Behavior: Cannot climb trees easily, bluff charges, powerful digger

    Photo by Steve Fassbinder
    Photo by Steve Fassbinder

    BEAR SELF-DEFENSE:

    When traveling in bear country, it is important to follow certain rules like making noise, deodorizing your camp, hanging food in a tree away from where you camp, and staying close to your companions. Learning to identify where bears are likely to be, what types of behavior bears in a certain region express, and what kinds of seasonal pressures bears are under are all important considerations but beyond the scope of this article. Further reading and inquiry is strongly recommended.

    The best defense against a bear attack is to avoid scenarios which put you or your team at risk. Sometimes, however, confrontations are unavoidable. Knowing what to do and how to behave in these instances can save your life.

    A U.S. Fish and Wildlife study showed that bear spray is more effective than a firearm in bear encounters. The study found that users were unharmed 50% of the time when using a gun, but that number jumped to 98% when using the spray.

    The active ingredient in bear spray is oleoresin capsicum, a naturally occurring oily residue found in cayenne peppers. Oleoresin capsicum causes an acute burning sensation and makes breathing difficult when discharged from the canister. With one hand, the victim can un-holster the bear spray, remove the safety with a flick of the thumb, and spray a devastating cloud of spicy deterrent in a matter of seconds, whereas it typically takes four highly accurate shots to achieve a positive outcome with a firearm.

    Photo by Luc Mehl
    Photo by Luc Mehl

    Not all bear spray is produced the same way, so it is important to know what to buy before heading into bear country. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends that the best distance for a bear spray to reach is 25 feet (7.6 meters) and that the discharge last at least six seconds in a 7.9-ounce canister. It is also worth noting that bear spray is much like the pepper spray used in defense against other humans but is different in the percentage of oleoresin capsicum. Pepper spray contains, on average, 1.33% oleoresin capsicum with bear spray containing at least 2%. Check the ratios before making a purchase.

    Another nonlethal bear deterrent is a marine, hand-held flare. This type of flare is designed as a signal for shipwrecked and stranded mariners but has been shown to work well frightening away aggressive or overly curious bears. Road flares work as well, but the Ikaros MK4 Hand Flare has a 15,000-candle output for 60 seconds, which results in a very bright, hot, and scary threat to your unwanted guest. This type of flare has triple utility for backcountry adventurers–bear deterrent, signaling, and starting an emergency fire.

    Electric fences may seem a little cumbersome and bulky for a wilderness backpacking or bikepacking adventure, but they are very effective and allow the weary adventurer a restful night of sleep in the thick of bear country. Counter Assault and other companies make compact bear fence kits that are powered by small consumer brand batteries. 

    Few things are as awe-inspiring and fascinating as watching a bear in its natural habitat. They are highly intelligent, resourceful creatures with exceedingly evolved social structures. Each is as unique and distinct as one human is to another. Getting an opportunity to witness these wild creatures is a true and unforgettable gift. Evidence supports that with a modicum of good sense, vigilance, and preparedness, it is much more likely that a bear encounter will be one of wonder and casual observation, than one of life-threatening terror.


    For more of Bjorn Olson’s trip reports, photography, films, and tales of Alaska, check out his website, http://www.mjolnirofbjorn.com/

    For more of Kim McNett’s artwork, head to her website,  https://www.kimsnaturedrawings.com/

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