By Bob Difley
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted a few years back. However, we revive it now, as grizzly bear sightings were made earlier this month in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. While the “news” portion of the story is out of date, the advice on visiting bear country “bears” repeating.
Bears are now emerging from their dens in northwestern Wyoming and wildlife managers say it’s time for people to consider carrying bear spray again when they’re visiting the back country.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports that several people have reported seeing bear tracks in Grand Teton National Park and in the Gros Ventre drainage.
Wildlife officers in Colorado have also reported that recent warm weather has prompted black bears in the state to start stirring from their dens earlier than usual.
There is also heavier snowpack this year in many areas, which means that bears will be coming into lower elevations to look for food, possibly low enough to encounter hikers, campers and boondockers.
Though black bear sightings are common in typical bear areas, they do not normally attack humans. However, if you do encounter a bear, it would be advisable to know what to do and what not to do. The following is the current advice from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:
* Do not feed or approach the bear.
* Remain calm and make the bear aware of your presence by speaking in a calm, assertive voice.
* Make sure the bear has an escape route.
* Yell, bang pots and pans or use an air horn to scare away the bear. Make yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with your arms raised above your head.
* The bear may swat the ground and utter a series of huffs, or make popping sounds by snapping its jaws. These are warning signs that you are too close. Slowly back away and avoid direct eye contact. Do not run.
* If a bear stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it may be trying to get a better view or detect scents in the air. It is usually not a threatening behavior.
* Black bears will sometimes bluff charge when cornered or threatened or when attempting to steal food. Stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact and then slowly back away. Do not run.
* If the bear will not leave, head for nearby shelter. Remember that black bear attacks are extremely rare. If a black bear does attack, fight back.
Remember that bears are attracted to the smell of food and anything that is aromatic that could be food, like toothpaste.
Leave no food out on your picnic table or in an ice chest. And pick up some bear spray – and keep it handy – just in case. Do not hike alone, and make enough noise so any bears will hear you coming and stay away from you. Check with the visitor center or rangers where you are camping to find out the current bear situation and any areas to avoid.
Personally – though I have never been attacked – I feel that trying to remember all those rules when confronted by a black bear and your adrenaline is pumping may not be an effective action. So consider the following excerpt from an article on the North American Bear Center website from someone that has been dealing with wild bears for more than 40 years:
“Their most common aggressive displays are merely rituals they perform when they are nervous. When I see any bluster, I feel safe. It means the bear wants to talk about the problem it has with me. I have never had one come after me and hurt me. The only times I have been bitten is when I initiated the contact.
“Black bears have killed 61 people across North America since 1900. This no longer worries me. My chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightning are vastly greater. My chances of being murdered are 60,000 times greater. One of the safest places a person can be is in the woods.” (Emphasis added.)
This is the Bear Center’s concise, practical advice:
What if I see a black bear?
This is probably the most common question we hear. The standard answer nationwide is, “Speak calmly and back away slowly.” This is good advice. It identifies you as a person, shows that you are non-threatening, and gives the bear space.
Is following this advice necessary to avoid an attack?
No. Those are polite actions that respect a black bear’s comfort zone and help ease its anxiety. It is the gentle way to separate. More aggressive action would be more likely to increase a black bear’s anxiety and send it running.
Which action is safest?
If a black bear is more than a few yards away, it hardly matters. Attacks are extremely rare despite what people do. Fearful, unnecessary advice about what to do, or not do, when a person sees a bear is often given by well-meaning people.
You can find Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.