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Bear Encounters

Individuals who panic, run, or fight an aggressive grizzly bear usually end up with the worst injuries. Keep in mind though that in most cases during a surprise encounter grizzly bears will run or leave the area once they have become aware of your presence.

Humans are NOT on the list of preferred food items for grizzly bears, and most bears want to avoid humans as much as possible.

During a close surprise encounter a grizzly bear may knock a person down, possibly claw them or even bite them but only in rare cases has a grizzly bear eaten a human and probably only after the bear inadvertently killed the person and then considered the body as a potential food item. In most cases a grizzly bear will run away even after they have knocked a person down and mauled them.

Lay Quietly

Here is the Key:

In virtually every mauling, each and every time a hiker has been charged and attacked by an angry, surprised grizzly bear. Once the person quit fighting, quit screaming and laid quiet………the bear has in nearly every case……….run or walked away. Grizzly bears want nothing to do with humans and are only mauling you, the hiker because they feel threatened and will continue to maul you as long as you are fighting and threatening them.

In a recent research project conducted in Yellowstone Park, bear researchers approached radio collared grizzly bears, and in 90% of the encounters each bear ran or moved off once the bear noticed the researcher nearby. The remaining 10% of encounters resulted in one or more of the following; the bear standing, making aggressive noises and/or making a short bluff charge BEFORE turning and running or moving away from the researcher.

As of 2010 firearms are allowed within Yellowstone National Park, but must be in compliance with applicable federal and state law. Firearms are not allowed in any Federal Building—Visitor Centers, Post Office, etc……..The way I understand it is, Yellowstone Park is within the boundaries of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. If you happen to be within the Montana section of Yellowstone you must comply with Montana state laws regarding the holding, possession and transport of firearms as well as the permits for each state. The same is true if you happen to be in Idaho or the Wyoming sections. Outside of Yellowstone Park boundaries hunters or individuals who have shot at grizzly bears have generally ended up with serious injuries about 40% of the time. Shooting a charging grizzly bear can be very difficult and will require nerves of steel. If you miss or just wound the bear you can count of getting seriously mauled, or killed.

Boat Air Horns are not allowed in the backcountry, or on hiking trails inside Yellowstone Park but can be used while boating on Yellowstone Lake.

Hikers and hunters who have stood their ground, stayed calm, played dead or have sprayed “bear spray” have generally walked away with few, or no injuries. Spraying pepper spray (bear spray) and or falling to the ground and “playing dead” should ONLY be done as a last resort. Remember, most bears will run or move away once they have noticed or heard you. Dealing with an aggressive or pushy black bear should be handled differently. More on this below.

The majority of all bear mauling’s have been with female (sow) grizzly bears and cubs and the majority of those mauling’s could have been avoided had the hiker or hikers made noise while hiking and paid more attention to the area they were about to hike into. More on this below too.

Bear Attacks – Defensive and Predatory

Bear attacks can be classified as two separate types: Defensive and Predatory.

A defensive attack, the most common type of bear attack, is generally the result of a surprise encounter and almost always with a sow (female) and her cubs. In nearly every mauling that has occurred in the past during a surprise encounter, once the hiker quit fighting and laid quiet, the sow has grabbed her cubs and run or walked away,
Hikers in this situation could have avoided the charge and possible mauling by paying closer attention to the area they were about to hike into. Making plenty of noise, and alerting any nearby bears of their presence. Most bears will approach to within 30 feet or so, before deciding to attack or retreat.

Predatory attacks are much different and are generally a result of a black bear or even mountain lion, but there have been a few reported cases of grizzly bears being involved in a predatory attack.

Predatory attacks by bears usually start off slowly and calmly when one or two hikers encounter a bear at some distance and the bear slowly approaches them and the hikers try to move away only to have the bear follow them. Basically what is happening is the bear is testing the hikers, and possibly the bear may have done this in the past and had a timid hiker drop their pack or even food on the ground and the bear has obtained a food reward and has learned that pushing people will result in a “reward”. Or, the bear may actually be looking at the hiker or couple as a potential food source.

This latter scenario is more common with black bears although it has happened with grizzly (brown) bears and if the bear is not aggressively pushed back or sprayed with “bear spray” the bear has finally attacked and then consumed the person.

General Rules of What to Do

The following are general rules of thumb. Keep in mind that bears are unpredictable and what worked for one hiker with one particular bear may not work the next day…………….. even with the same bear. And once in awhile no matter what you do is going to result in a mauling. It could be as simple as “sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you”.

In a defensive attack, if a grizzly bear does charge it will probably be very fast and explosive:

  • Stay Calm
  • Be prepared for an encounter or emergency at any moment. Heading off into the backcountry thinking “it won’t happen to me” , will only get you into trouble.
  • Never run or scream. Grizzly bears can sprint between 30-35 miles per hour …….about 44 feet per second. You can not out run a charging grizzly bear.
  • Climb a tree only if you have time. In most cases people who have tried to climb trees did not have enough time, and were dragged out of the tree they were attempting to climb. Grizzly bears have been observed climbing 30 feet into trees, so climb at least 31 feet . The average distance hikers have first noticed that there was a bear nearby prior to a charge is 14 feet! More on this
  • Stand your ground initially and see what the bear is going to do. If you are in a large group of 4 or more, stay together in a group mass to look larger.
  • There is some evidence that you should not look the bear directly in the eye, but look down and to the side acting submissive keeping the bear in your vision. Wild animals communicate with body language. Any bear encountering larger, dominant adult bears move their heads to the side and slightly downward while backing up, or off to the side which is a sign of submission.
  • Dropping a hat or coat seems to work, while slowly backing up.
  • Talking softly seems to work very well and helps to diffuse the situation. A few individuals have had success at yelling and waving their arms but the evidence suggests that you are better off staying calm and not yelling.
  • Never take your pack off. If later on you are forced to drop to the ground you will want your pack on your back for protection. Plus, there is some evidence that bears can become conditioned when encountering hikers that panic and drop their packs at first sight of a bear and then raid those packs for food, making the next human encounter very dangerous for the next hikers.
  • Drop down and lay flat on the ground with your hands on the back of your neck…..only as a last resort when it becomes obvious that the charging bear is not going to stop and is about to make contact. Do not move or make noise until it is obvious that the bear has left the area. Grizzlies will often re-attack if the person moves or makes noise.
  • Spray “Bear Spray” only as a last resort, but before dropping to the ground. In most cases the sound of the first shot from a canister of bear spray has stopped or slowed a charging bear.
  • Stay together in a tight group. Bears are more reluctant to attack or charge a group of people than they are one lone person.

Pay attention to your surroundings!! In most cases hikers could have avoided encounters with bears by paying attention to the surrounding area they were about to hike into and left the area once they spotted a bear nearby.

With the average distance of 14 feet that hikers have first noticed a bear nearby prior to an attack tells us that most people stare at the ground while hiking. Over the course of two summers I walked down several trails 100 yards and then stepped off to the side of the trail 6 feet, sitting in plain sight with a cooler and clipboard, not one single hiker ever noticed me. Its a wonder we don’t have more mauling’s each year, and probably due to the fact that most bears would rather avoid humans.

If you encounter an aggressive black bear or mountain lion react aggressively. Fight back aggressively. Black bears and mountain lions are predatory and have been known to stalk, or test humans and eat them if given the chance. On average 3 people a year are killed and eaten by black bears in North America. Most of those deaths have occurred in the Great Smoky Mountains, and Canada. Often with women napping or reading a book while their husbands were fishing nearby.

Bears In Camp At Night

Having a bear in camp late at night is completely different than a chance encounter during the day. If you have a bear come into camp at night, this is a bear that has possibly been fed or received some sort of reward (food) in the past when it has come into a campground or residential area or it could be a very old or very young bear during a “bad bear food year” when natural bear foods are hard to find and could possibly be looking at you as a potential food source. React aggressively, no matter what specie of bear.

When a bear comes into a camp, especially at night, we know that this is not a typical bear encounter but a bear that has possibly been conditioned to humans and human food, trash, etc….”Grizzly bears usually enter camping areas at a walk and at night. Before an attack, a person seldom sees any signs of aggression.” Writes, Dr. Stephen Herrero in his book “Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance”. Individuals who have aggressively yelled at the bear or thrown rocks or other objects to distract the bear, generally have then had time to move away to safety or, they drove the bear away with the first yell and aggressive action.

Stay together in a group. Never leave your tent area alone. Bears are more reluctant to attack a group of people than they are a single person.

Identifying the type of bear you are dealing with can be a problem for some folks. Remember, color can not be used for identification. You wouldn’t want to act submissive to a predatory black bear, nor would you want to act aggressively towards a defensive grizzly bear.

A Note On “Bear Bells”

Bear bells are generally a grouping of several small bells, sometimes just one bell, often attached to hiking boots, walking staff’s, backpacks, etc.. The responses of grizzly bears to the sound of bear bells has not been studied experimentally. However, there have been rumors of data collected which indicate that hikers wearing “bear bells” have reported seeing more bears. Possibly due to curiosity, if in fact this data exists.

Obviously the more noise you make the better, but the locals call the sound of bear bells “ringing the dinner bell”, and I have to admit the sound of bells ringing off in the distance seems a bit intrusive to me. After all, we are the visitors when we step on the trail.

Periodic sounds of clapping and maybe a “Hey Bear!” once in awhile just seems to fit better and do as well, or better than the constant ringing of bells. Your choice.

Generally groups of 4 or more will make enough noise talking while they hike to alert any bear, much less any other nearby animal of their presence.

Examining a real life “typical” bear encounter in Yellowstone

Sept. 14, 2005
3:15 PM

Pat McDonald, 52, of Bismarck, N.D., and Gerald Holzer, 51, of Northfield, Minn., were hiking on a trail near Shoshone Lake in the park’s southern portion. They were roughly a mile from their designated campsite when they met two hikers who said they had seen a black bear or a grizzly. “So we were alert,” Holzer said. A little farther up the trail they came upon a loose, splatty pile of bear scat.

The pair were on their way to a backcountry campsite and decided to continue, although they “began making noise in an attempt to deter a possible bear encounter,” a news release said.

Just spotting bear scat on the trail is no cause for real alarm, but should be a caution. Bears use trails as much as people do. It is the point of least resistance. Hike down a perfectly good trail, or climb over deadfall? Grizzly bears also prefer open grassland meadows, unlike black bears who prefer the timber. Most hikers are unaware of this fact and generally “watch the timber”. A 3.5 foot tall (from ground to top of back) grizzly bear can disappear like a ghost in an open, rolling grassland meadow.

The hikers did the right thing in this case by making noise, but I wonder if they were making enough noise? Without speaking with them directly, I’m not sure, but feel pretty confident that they probably continued to hike at their normal pace and probably watched the trail too closely (the use of hiking poles). It is possible that they hurried their pace in an effort to see the bear for themselves. A very common occurrence each year.

Hikers in this situation should slow down, and stop frequently. Look at the trail less, and watch the surrounding area they are about to hike into more closely. Look for ears, or hair blowing in the wind through the grass. In most cases you are not going to see a full sized animal in rolling meadow terrain. Maybe just the top of the back of the bear, or the top of a head. Maybe just some hair blowing, or other slight movement which you would not see if your staring at the trail.

Make plenty of noise. Depending on the season and how fresh I thought the scat might be, I would probably also unstrap the bear spray and have it ready for use, just in case. Especially if hikers heading out of the area reported spotting a bear just down the trail, and depending on my “sixth sense”, I might even stop the hike and return to the road.

About a quarter-mile further along the trail, they crossed a knoll and “were charged by a grizzly at full stride,” the release said.

Holzer, who was in front, side-stepped the bear. McDonald stepped behind some trees and dropped to the ground. The bear ran past him, but returned and swatted at him, then turned to Holzer, who had dropped to the ground and was lying on his stomach.

The bear jumped on Holzer’s back, swatted at him, then retreated about 50 yards “where they could hear it snorting.” Huffs and snorts are signs of an agitated bear.

Perfect response. Both hikers kept their packs on their backs, which protected them during the swatting.

However, it is unknown how far apart they “sidestepped” from each other. It may have been better had they sidestepped together in the same direction. Possibly moving behind the tree together, while slowly backing up would have been a better option. Bears are less likely to attack multiple people than they are one person. Once hikers have moved apart, charging bears have been more likely to attack.

McDonald then began removing the wrist straps from his hiking poles so he could reach the bear spray at his waist. The bear then attacked, and started working on McDonald’s leg.

This is where McDonald did the wrong thing. At this point in the attack it was too late to think about bear spray and moving only forced the bear to re-attack. ( I hate hiking poles, It requires you to look at the ground much more so you don’t get the poles tangled up in underbrush and makes grabbing the bear spray more difficult).

Bear attack victims who have “gone to the ground” should remain motionless until they are certain the bear has left the area. The majority of bear attacks are a result of a surprise encounter and a perception on the bear’s part that the hiker is a threat. Usually ending when the bear perceives that the threat has been removed. Bear attacks are rarely fatal

Nevertheless, he was able to retrieve the spray and doused the bear in the face. The bear then ran off.

He was probably lucky that he was able to get to the can and not lose it during this re-attack. Most victims lose the can during the attack, or are so nervous and excited that they are unable to make use of the spray.

Again, it would have been better if they both had layed quiet until they were certain that the bear had left the area and not moved. The only time I would consider reaching for the bear spray or moving in any way after dropping to the ground would be; if the bear were seriously mauling my friend. Don’t worry, you’ll know when its a serious case. The sounds of your friend and the attack itself will tell you.

Remember! Once you step on the trail


Bear Spray

Counter Assault bear spray is the best brand on the market in my opinion and the ONLY brand on the market which meets all requirements. Counter Assault is also the original developer and manufacturer of bear spray, and the only brand extensively tested by the University of Montana.

Buy only products that are clearly labeled “for deterring attacks by bears.” The spray should have a concentration of 1.4 percent to 1.8 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids.

Bear Spray generally has a 3-4 year shelf life. Replace regularly.

Bear Spray should be carried on hip in a holster and not inside a backpack.

The canister should show a net weight of at least 225 grams or 7.9 ounces.

The spray should be released in a shotgun-cloud pattern, not a stream, and should be released at a minimum range of 25 feet. The cloud should last at least 6 seconds.

Buy only spray approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bear pepper spray should be used only by people confronted by an aggressive bear, and not on humans.

Most bear encounters occur within 100 feet of the animal, with the bear approaching to within 30 or 40 feet of a person before deciding whether to charge or retreat.

A hiker usually can get an initial shotgun-blast cloud of spray out ahead of them, both the sound and the sight of the cloud has caused many bears to retreat immediately.

If the bear continues to approach, even at a full charge, the first blast seems to deter many bears as soon as the bear feels the effects of the initial blast. Further spraying directly toward the face of the bear often deters even agitated and aggressive bears.

If a person has too small a can or insufficient spraying distance, he or she will have used most of the spray in the first blast.

The amount of spray becomes even more important on windy, rainy or cold days, or when encountering a highly protective sow with cubs or a bear on a carcass.


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