With Spring just around the corner, more Americans are thinking about loading their mobile homes, and heading into the forests and mountains of our national parks, where they frequently encounter bears.Luckily, most run-ins with bears do not result in an attack. In nearly all cases, the bear will turn about and go the other way.
Take the example of Yellowstone National Park, it’s known to have the highest concentration of grizzlies in the USA. In it’s long history, since opening in 1872, it has received over 125 million visitors, and only eight of those visitors have been killed by bear attacks.
Being killed by a grizzly bear is a tragic but rare event, and animal behavoural
experts say, the chances of being injured by a bear are around 1 in 2.1 million. However, if you’re unconvinced by statistics and think you might run into a grizzly bear, here are the golden rules to follow in bear territory, that just might save your life.
The First Rule of Hiking in Bear Country: Always Carry Bear Spray
A study published way back in 2008 by Stephen Herrero and Tom Smith, two leading bear behavior experts from Canada, found that bear pepper spray is 92 percent effective in stopping an attack, leaving nearly all users uninjured after a close encounter.They are more useful than guns, which require more expertise and nerves of steel to take aim and fire at a rushing bear.
Bears are fast moving and terrifying animals, and guns usually take longer to deploy than pepper spray. They may only wing or injure, making the bear more determined to neutralise the threat you pose. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, those using firearms to defend themselves are injured in 50 percent of attacks.Learn how to use bear spray and keep it handy, in a holster or an accessible front pocket, in case of a sudden attack. Also before arriving in bear territory, ensure that the spray works and there’s enough of it.
The Second Rule: Know your Bear Breeds
If you encounter a bear, you need to know what type of bear you’re dealing with. Different types of bears call for different strategies in handling an attack. In the USA, there are three species: the brown bear, the black bear and polar bear. Unless you’re on the north coast of Alaska, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever meet a polar bear. You’re more likely to meet either a brown or a black bear.
Historically, brown bears have been divided into two categories. However, the only real difference between a grizzly and a brown bear is their diet. The grizzly lives off a plant-based diet in the mountains making them smaller and more lighty coloured than the American brown bear that lives off fish, mainly salmon, on the coast. DNA has shown that the “grizzly bear” and the American “brown bear” are the same thing. They are part of the same brown bear species that can be found in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.
Weighing around 200-500 pounds, black bears can range in colour from white, blond, cinnamon, dark brown, blue-black to black. Grizzlies are usually larger than than black bears with an adult grizzly weighing on average 300–700 pounds. In colour, they can be almost-white, light brown, chocolate, dark brown and almost black.
Despite the average difference in size, hungry female grizzlies can weigh less than well-fed male black bears. The best way to distinguish grizzlies from black bears, is not by size, but by their claws, shoulder hump and their face. Grizzlies have much longer claws than black bears. They have a concave or dished face, a tubular snout, round, short ears, in contrast to the black bear that has a flatter nose and larger ears. The grizzly also has a large notable shoulder hump, that the black bear lacks.
Blacks bears are also more timid. If encountered, the best advice is not to play dead but to stand tall, “big up” and make a lot of noise. Show the animal that there will be a price to pay, if it attacks you. If that doesn’t scare it off, and you have bear spray, use it.If they attack, try to fight back using any object at hand such as rocks or sticks. Concentrate your blows on the bear’s face. Never play dead if confronted by a black bear.
Defending yourself against a grizzle requires different tactics. The best advice is to deliver as much bear spray to the eyes and nose of an approaching bear. If the bear breaks through the spray and makes contact, fall down and play dead. However, if the bear has been stalking you, it’s highly probable that this is a predatory attack and you must fight for your life.
The Third Rule: Know the dispositions of grizzly bears
Grizzlies can be very aggressive and their Latin name, Ursus arctos horribilis, tells you all you need to know about their disposition. Despite their fierce reputation much of their aggressive behaviour is only shown if they feel that they or their offspring are being threatened. Most attacks on humans are by females protecting their young. A bear when defending itself or cubs will keep its head low and ears back making it more difficult for predators to attack it. Defensive attacks are intended to quickly dispel a threat, and usually only last a few a minutes.
That said not all bears are defending cubs or territory. Grizzly bears have been known to kill and eat large animals. If a bear comes towards you and has its head up and ears erect, its considering you as prey. If it charges towards you, its making a predatory attack intending to kill you.
The Fourth Rule: Be Aware
If you see fresh droppings or tracks for example, it means that a bear has recently passed that way and might be close by.Be alert, and think about how you’re going to respond to the close presence of a bear.Never let yourself zone out or fall into a daydream as you walk in bear territory. Stay aware looking for the sights and sounds that signal the presence of a bear. If you hear the clack of teeth or huffing, it’s a bear warning you that you are too close and you should slowly back away.
Don’t use mobile technology, a number of hikers and hunters have been attacked, and killed, while talking on the phone or listening to music. They were totally unaware of the presence of a bear or that they were walking in its direction.
The Fifth Rule: Be Noisy not Stealthy
To prevent a sudden encounter with an angry bear, never move silently by yourself. Predators move silently and alone, and this behaviour sparks innate fears in bears causing them to attack. Travel in noisy groups, singing or talking, to give bears fair warning of your presence, which they will normally avoid.
The Sixth Rule: Stay away from a bear that’s hanging over an animal carcass
Bears are very protective of their kills. By avoiding a bear hanging over a carcass, the risk of attack is reduced by as much as fifty percent. If you see a bear with a kill you should slowly back away.
If you’ve followed all the rules and you still run into a bear …
Don’t Run or Climb a Tree
Some people advise climbing a tree as a way of escaping an oncoming bear. This is one of the worst things you can do. All bears can climb trees, grizzlies included. Don’t run either, bears are much faster than you, and as with dogs, a running animal rouses their predatory instincts and they’ll give chase.
In bear language, fleeing or climbing a tree signals submissiveness and the possibility that you might be prey. A Yellowstone Park study reported that of all the hikers that were attacked in the park, 61 percent, of those who were injured, tried to run away or climb a tree.
Slowly take out your bear spray and undo the safety catch…
You should have practiced this manoeuvre before coming into bear country. If the oncoming bear is a black bear, stand tall and make a lot of noise to scare it off. If it’s a grizzly, remain calm, and take aim.
If the bear gets close, fifteen to twenty yards away, you should start spraying. This should deter the bear from advancing, but be ready to use the spray again if you have to.
If you’re dealing with a charging bear within 20-25 feet, aim the nozzle of the bear spray just above the bear’s head and give a continuous blast. As the bear gets closer, you should focus the spray directly at the eyes and nose.
When a bear is close enough to swat you, continue spraying until it makes contact. Once it makes contact, drop to the ground, keep your backpack on to protect your spine. Lie face down and clasp your hands round the back of your neck with your elbows jutting out to protect your face.
When the bear leaves the scene, stay on the ground for several minutes to ensure it has left the vicinity and hasn’t come back to check if it has neutralised the threat.