Avoiding Human-Bear Conflicts

Preventing Bear Attacks. Black and grizzly bears must be respected. They have great strength and agility, and will defend themselves, their young, and their territories if they feel threatened. Learn to recognize the differences between black and brown bears. Knowledge and alertness can help avoid encounters with bears that could be hazardous. They are unpredictable and can inflict serious injury. NEVER feed or approach a bear.

To avoid a bear encounter, stay alert and think ahead. Always hike in a group. Carry noisemakers, such as bells or cans containing stones. Most bears will leave a vicinity if they are aware of human presence. Remember that noisemakers may not be effective in dense brush or near rushing water. Be especially alert when traveling into the wind since bears may not pick up your scent and may be unaware of your approach. Stay in the open and avoid food sources such as berry patches and carcass remains. Bears may feel threatened if surprised. Watch for bear sign—fresh tracks, digging, and scats (droppings). Detour around the area if bears or their fresh sign are observed.

NEVER approach a bear cub. Adult female black bears are very defensive and may be aggressive, making threatening gestures (laying ears back, huffing, chopping jaws, stomping feet) and possibly making bluff charges. Black bears rarely attack humans, but they have a tolerance range which, when encroached upon, may trigger an attack. Keep a distance of at least 100 yards (100 m) between you and bears.

Bears are omnivores, eating both vegetable and animal matter, so don’t encourage them by leaving food or garbage around camp. When bears associate food with humans, they often lose their fear of humans and are attracted to campsites. Food-conditioned bears are very dangerous.

In established campgrounds, keep your campsite clean, and lock food in the trunk of your vehicle. Don’t leave dirty utensils around the campsite, and don’t cook or eat in tents. After eating, place garbage in containers provided by the campground.

In the backcountry, establish camp away from animal or walking trails and near large, sparsely branched trees that can be climbed should it become necessary. Choose another area if fresh bear sign is present. Cache food away from your tent, preferably suspended from a tree that is 100 yards (100 m) downwind of camp. Hang food from a strong branch at least 15 feet (4.5 m) high and 8 feet (2.4 m) from the trunk of the tree. Use bear-proof or airtight containers for storing food and other attractants. Freeze-dried foods are light-weight and relatively odor-free. Pack out all noncombustible garbage. Burying it is useless and dangerous. Bears can easily smell it and dig it up. The attracted bear may then become a threat to the next group of hikers. Always have radio communication and emergency transportation available for remote base or work camps, in case of accidents or medical emergencies.

Don’t take dogs into the backcountry. The sight or smell of a dog may attract a bear and provoke an attack. Most dogs are no match for a bear. When in trouble, the dog may come running back to the owner with the bear in pursuit. Trained guard dogs are an exception and may be useful in detecting and chasing away bears in the immediate area.

Bear Confrontations. If a bear is seen at a distance, make a wide detour. Keep upwind if possible so the bear can pick up human scent and recognize human presence. If a detour or retreat is not possible, wait until the bear moves away from the path. Always leave an escape route and never harass a bear.

If a bear is encountered at close range, keep calm and assess the situation. A bear rearing on its hind legs is not always aggressive. If it moves its head from side to side it may only be trying to pick up scent and focus its weak eyes. Remain still and speak in low tones. This may indicate to the animal that there is no threat. Assess the surroundings before taking action. There is no guaranteed life-saving method of handling an aggressive bear, but some behavior patterns have proven more successful than others.

Do not run. Most bears can run as fast as a racehorse, covering 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m) per second. Quick, jerky movements can trigger an attack. If an aggressive bear is met in a wooded area, speak softly and back slowly toward a tree. Climb a good distance up the tree. Most black bears are agile climbers, so a tree offers limited safety, but you can defend yourself in a tree with branches or a boot heel. Adult grizzlies don’t climb as a rule, but large ones can reach up to 10 feet (3 m).

Occasionally, bears will bluff by charging within a few yards (m) of an unfortunate hiker. Sometimes they charge and veer away at the last second. If you are charged, attempt to stand your ground. The bear may perceive you as a greater threat than it is willing to tackle and may leave the area.

Black bears are less formidable than grizzly bears, and may be frightened off by acting aggressively toward the animal. Do not play dead if a black bear is stalking you or appears to consider you as prey. Use sticks, rocks, frying pans, or whatever is available to frighten the animal away. As a last resort, when attacked by a grizzly/brown bear, passively resist by playing dead. Drop to the ground face down, lift your legs up to your chest, and clasp both hands over the back of your neck. Wearing a pack will shield your body. Brown bears have been known to inflict only minor injuries under these circumstances. It takes courage to lie still and quiet, but resistance is usually useless.

Many people who work in or frequent bear habitat carry firearms for personal protection. High-powered rifles (such as a .458 magnum with a 510-grain soft-point bullet or a .375 magnum with a 300-grain soft-point bullet) or shotguns (12-gauge with rifled slugs) are the best choices, followed by large handguns (.44 magnum or 10 mm). Although not a popular solution, killing a bear that is attacking a human is justifiable.

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