You are hiking with a group of friends in the backcountry of Yellowstone, close to the northeast entrance. When you chose your backcountry site at the ranger station, a park ranger warned that bears were recently seen in the area. Two of your friends are experienced backcountry hikers, but the third has never stepped off the beaten path. As you set out on the trail, everyone is excited, hooting and hollering, but the ascent is steep and soon everyone is out of breath. About two miles in, the trail dips down over a ridge into a valley. You are leading the group, and as you get your first glimpse over the ridge, you see a grizzly and three cubs 50 yards down the slope. You freeze, but you are upwind of the bear and it has already caught your scent. It rears up on its hind legs, sniffing the air and moving its round face side to side, then drops down to all fours, snorting, popping its jaws, cracking its teeth and pawing the ground.
What would you do?
Today I received the following email from the chef on campus:
Hey all ,
Just returning to campus 200 yards from base of Lobo Hill 399 and 3 cubs crossed road to Ditch Creek heading up creek .
Bears are a reality here in Teton National Park, and it is crucial to be prepared to encounter a bear in the wilderness. With that being said, you have a 1 in 2.1 million chance of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone National Park (Reported by Yellowstone National Park Service). There are five keys to remaining in the majority: 1) Do not hike alone 2) Make noise 3) Hike with bear spray 4) Do not run 5) Stay alert. If you follow these five guidelines, you will be in good shape.
For most people, these five guidelines don’t supply enough information. Most of us need more detailed criteria for specific situations. Here are a few situations, along with the most tried-and-true responses:
You walk around a corner, and you see a bear 20 feet away.
If the bear hasn’t noticed you, sneak away without drawing attention to yourself. Keep an eye on the bear in case it notices you.
The bear sees you before you can slip away out of sight.
Stop moving and pull out your bear spray. Take off the safety clip and act human. Talk to the bear in a nice, friendly voice- “hey, how are you? I’m just a hiker, enjoying the woods. I see you are having a nice time eating berries? That’s good, I hope you don’t want to eat me.” As you are talking to the bear, slowly walk away. Do not turn away from the bear and do not make eye contact.
The bear rears up on its hind legs, then falls down onto all fours.
Bears are curious creatures and this behavior does not indicate an imminent charge. Follow the same steps as above.
The bear begins pawing the ground, popping its jaw, and clacking its teeth
This is bear-to-bear aggressive behavior. Follow the same steps above and slowly walk away. Do not make eye contact, as this can be seen as aggressive behavior.
The bear charges.
Spray an initial short spray. This may deter the bear when it hits the wall of pepper spray. If the bear doesn’t stop, wait until the bear is within range of the pepper spray, then spray directly into the face of the bear. Often bears will stop or veer off at the last second, even without the short spray of pepper.
The bear doesn’t stop charging, and you can’t react quickly enough to get the bear spray out of its holster.
Do not run. Lay down on your stomach and cover your head and neck with your arms. Leave your pack on for protection. If the bear rolls you onto your back, continue the roll to get back onto your stomach.
The bear doesn’t stop attacking.
Fight back. Give it everything you’ve got. This is your last resort, so make sure you have exhausted all of your options. If you survive, you will have a great story.
The bear loses interest and begins to walk away.
Do not get up! Stay down! If you move, it may draw the grizzly back for another attack. Give the bear plenty of time to get a safe distance away.
You are sleeping in your tent and are awakened by a bear entering your tent.
Fight. Grab anything you can and throw it at the bear. Do not play dead! This bear is treating you as prey, and you need to fight back with tooth and nail to survive.
It is incredibly rare that a bear will treat a human as prey, but it is useful to address this option because it has occurred on rare occasions. Usually these bears are either habituated to human food or there is food scarcity in the environment.
Although it is great to know what to do in a bear encounter, it is best to prevent an encounter in the first place. Avoid walking at dawn and dusk. Twilight hours are when crepuscular animals such as bears and wolves are the most active. Hike in large groups of at least three people, and make noise while hiking. Making noise will reduce the chance of surprising a bear, and hiking in groups makes you more intimidating as a group. Make sure that when hiking in a group, you actually hike together. Hiking in a group of three doesn’t help if one person wanders off alone. Do not use a gun to deter a bear. Unless you are a dead shot, the wound will simply aggravate the bear and seal your fate. Bear spray is more effective than using a gun, and it does not cause permanent damage to bears.
Another crucial preventative action is to maintain a safe distance from wild animals. For bears, the average comfort zone is 100 yards (about the length of a football field). If you are closer than 100 yards to a bear, you are too close. Since most people have a hard time estimating 100 yards, use the following rule: if your behavior alters the behavior of the animal, you are too close. Pictures are never worth getting mauled.
While on a hike, it is good practice to search for bear signs while hiking. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for tracks, scat, fresh claw marks on aspens, evidence of tree rubbing, or sounds such as grunting, growling or huffing. If you detect these characteristic bear signs, make a decision about whether to take another route, or at the very least, be prepared and have a heightened sense of awareness.
Although our focus has been directed towards bears, these safety precautions hold true for all wild animals. Moose, elk, bison and wolves require the same respect and preventative action as bears. Bear spray is not created specifically for bears. The concoction is simply pepper spray, which is painful to all animals, including humans.
The underlying theme of animal safety in the wilderness is to have respect for the animals and to be prepared with preventative measures and practical defense protocols. Some people allow fear of the wildlife to ruin outdoor experiences. Remember the stats. Chances are good you will not be injured in a bear encounter. Enjoy the wild, but be prepared for the dangers it poses.
References: Lecture by Josh Kleyman, August 23, 2013.