Bears don’t know any better, but you do
Because humans share the environment with bears, and because we have our similarities, there are bound to be conflicts. We both feel comfortable living in this particular environment. We eat similar foods such as berries, fish and moose. In fact, each of us is at the top of our food chain, competing for space in the very same ecosystem. The most significant difference is we have a far superior intellect (usually), making us all the more responsible for conflicts. We have to be preventative and on guard for the safety of ourselves and the bear.
Jessy Coltrane, Anchorage area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says, “The reality is bears are large, potentially dangerous predators, so they have the ability and anatomy to injure you if something goes awry.”
Fortunately conflicts resulting in injury are not very common.
“If you actually look at the number of people that are living and recreating in bear country throughout Alaska and other parts of North America, the astronomical number of people doing things outdoors in bear country every day, the reality is very few people are ever mauled or injured by bears on any level.”
Potential danger is present, however, and requires action just like your other daily activities.
“You have a way higher risk of getting hit walking across the street or getting hit on a bicycle,” she says, “so it’s putting that risk in perspective with day-to-day activities.”
Still, we have the opportunity to reduce risk of bear encounters and that begins with making good choices just like looking both ways before crossing the street.
“The biggest things we tell people are you’re more safe in big groups of people which tend to make more noise,” says Coltrane. “You’re most negative encounters occur with brown bears in defensive attacks where people surprise the bear, so when you travel in groups or make noise you reduce the potential for startling them.”
She also recommends picking routes and activities carefully.
“Sneaking down a salmon creek during salmon spawning time is more hazardous than most other recreational activities,” says Coltrane. “And faster paced activities have a higher potential for an encounter than slower ones because you have more potential to run across a bear in a surprise encounter.”
Steer clear of salmon streams and carcasses that may be food for a bear, and biking and running in known bear habitats may pose more risk than walking. Also, heed bear warning signs often posted at trailheads. And even when you think you are in a safe location, carry some form of defense.
“Carry bear spray,” says Coltrane. “Bear spray is very effective in deterring bears from attacks and warning even a curious bear off.”
Coltrane says results have shown that bear spray works on brown, black and even polar bears.
With regard to firearms, Fish and Game biologists do carry them during some circumstances, but they always have the bear spray handy. People need to decide for themselves what they are most comfortable with and know how to use their chosen method effectively.
“I always recommend people to carry bear spray when traveling in bear country,” Coltrane says, “and know how to use it.”
Basically, if you haven’t tested your can, you don’t know how it operates or feels (point downwind).
Expert advice in the event spray or other protection isn’t available is to remain calm, never run, allow the bear to know you are there by talking gently, gather in groups to look larger, and back off slowly. If the bear makes contact anyway, play dead. Some experts do say to fight back if the attack is from a black bear.
Because defensive bear attacks make up about 90 percent of attacks versus predatory attacks where a bear sees a human as a food source, Coltrane says, playing dead is the best defense against further harm. This behavior helps reinforce to the bear that you are not a threat, and they are safe to move on. Meanwhile, you can scramble off for some stitches when the coast is clear.
Make no mistake, both black and brown bear are rustling around in the woods, walking along a nearby stream or sniffing out a carcass in some meadow not too far away. They need to feed and protect their young – more often than not the reason for aggressive behavior – just as we do, but our responsibility is to understand and employ methods that limit or prevent conflicts. The bear has no other tools but ferocity and brute strength to survive. Know this and plan your excursions accordingly.