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Preventing Bear Attacks: Tips From a Wildlife Biologist

In response to a recent bear attack: practical tips for dealing with bear encounters.

By: Imogene Cancellare + Save to a List

While perusing the internet this evening, I came across some gasp-inducing photos of a Bozeman man who survived a grizzly attack over the weekend.


As in he was attacked by the same sow within ten minutes.

For more information, read here. To summarize: a Montana man startled a female grizzly bear (with cubs) in a meadow, and, despite his loud noises and efforts to deter her, she charged and attacked, then attacked again ten minutes later as he was leaving the trail. The man survived. This was a remarkable event, he is wildly lucky, and I want to comment on it for a number of reasons. Foremost, I have to say that the man in question did everything right. But, what were those things, and how can you be prepared for a possible wildlife attack? Outside of personal safety, I want to point out why taking necessary precautions is paramount to both wildlife and conserving our wild places.

Bears are amazing species that are integral components of the ecosystems they inhabit. Like most wild animals, bears attack when they feel threatened, when they are defending food, or when they are defending young. This doesn't mean you should avoid the outdoors, live in fear of nature, or feel that preparation only involves a firearm. On the contrary, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service emphasizes that bear spray can be more effective than firearms, and this study by Smith et al (2006) highlighted that bear spray is an effective alternative to lethal force. As a wildlife biologist who has worked with black bears, I have only had two close encounters with bears. While a bear attack on a human is generally uncommon, I know many biologists and outdoor men and women who have had up close, dangerous, and harrowing encounters with both black bears and grizzly bears. If you've seen The Revenant, you might imagine what I'm talking about (which, in my professional opinion, is extremely accurate in terms of bear behavior and both offensive as well as defensive attack). Does this mean we should fear bears, and other wildlife? Yes and no.

Photo: Ryan McKinney

If the fear involves persecution, excessive hunting, anti-carnivore semanticism, trigger happy behavior, or a sense of entitlement in the woods: go home. If your concerns involve appropriate preparation, respect for the wild places you are visiting, an understanding of wildlife behavior, and a backup plan, then you are doing a good job.

This weekend's attack is the result of everything being done right, and nature not really caring. Sometimes wildlife is like that, and I am so happy that the man survived the attack. I'm happy that the bear survived, and I appreciate that the survivor is not using this platform to crucify bears. While it is sometimes necessary that wildlife are selectively euthanized for human safety, we must give animals like bears appropriate space in order to minimize our chance of an attack. Below are my tips on being prepared and responding to a dangerous situation.

Before you go into bear country, or cougar country:

1. Buy bear spray. This is absolutely your most important step. I have worked on numerous research projects across the country, and I always carry bear spray. I carry it on my hip in a holster, or on the shoulder strap of my pack. If it's not easily accessible, it is not helpful. At $35-50 dollars a canister, it seems expensive, but you'll be glad you have it. It sprays up to 20 feet and in a powerful stream capable of incapacitating large animals. Buy at your local outdoor store, or online. It works on everything with eyes. 

2. Know your wildlife, know your season. Before you go outdoors, research what wildlife you may encounter. This changes depending on the time of year, and the danger of an attack increases during certain times of the year- namely, when prey items are abundant and predators might guard caches, or when mothers are with young, when breeding season makes males more aggressive, or just after or just before hibernation. If you see a baby anything, look up and get out. The photos are not worth it. 

3. Engage in precautionary behavior. Regularly calling out "hey bear!" during a hike may sound silly, but it helps wildlife hear you. Startled animals might be more likely to attack, so talking with friends and occasionally calling out loud will warn wildlife of your approach, and give them ample time to leave the area.

4. Pack it in, pack in out. Don't leave food at your campsite. Hang it in a bear sack, place it in a bear-safe container away from your campsite, or leave it in your car.

Photo: Ryan McKinney

However, what do you do when the above fails? What happens if you meet a potentially dangerous animal on the trail?

1. Don't panic. Yea, great advice over the internet, right? When my good friend was last charged by a griz (she's been charged a handful of times...perks of being a biologist), she pointed out certain behaviors that are useful when assessing a dangerous situation. Bears sometimes swing their heads, snap their jaws, and make low, growling noises as a warning. If you come on a bear and see this, back away slowly. Startling a bear may elicit an immediate attack, which makes the above helpful. 

2. Know your bear. Is it a black bear or a grizzly bear? They behave differently, and you need to know which one you're dealing with. Grizzly bears are notoriously more aggressive and quick to anger than black bears. Oftentimes getting big, throwing things, and yelling is enough to make a black bear run away. For grizzly bears, however, this can make them more angry or more likely to charge. If you cannot identify the species, pull out your bear spray and back away slowly and quietly. Do not run. 

3. In terms of wildlife behavior, a bear may charge you because he or she perceives you as a threat, and their goal is to neutralize the threat. On the slim chance you are charged by a bear of any species, these are, in my opinion, your realistic options: deploy your bear spray, if you can, when the animal is within 20 feet. If you cannot, or, if the bear spray does not work (it usually does), drop to the ground in the fetal position. Use your arms to protect your neck (the same position we practiced in elementary school tornado drills), keep your legs drawn up under you, face down, and be quiet. In the above case, this tactic likely saved the man's life, as noise and fighting made the bear more angry.  Being as uninteresting and harmless as possible may work in your favor. In some cases, fighting back may be effective (especially with mountain lions), but making yourself small and nonthreatening may minimize the severity of an attack- i.e. you might have a better chance at walking away. 

Photo: Ryan McKinney

I had mixed feelings making this list, as my intent is not to inspire fear or hatred towards bears or wildlife. Moreover, I have personally had lovely, peaceful experiences with bears in the wild, with both species safely respecting the space of the other. However, as apex predators, they deserve our respect, and it is important to understand that bear attacks are extremely dangerous. Failing to follow these measures could cost you your life, but it could also unnecessarily cost a wild animal it's life (read my response to the Yellowstone bison incident here). As outdoor enthusiasts, we want to be safe, but we also don't want our actions to cause the decline of wildlife or restrict our access to wild places. Every wild encounter is different, and while we cannot predict the behavior and responses of wildlife, this post is meant to serve as a guideline for your outdoor adventures. Every situation is different, and there are no sets of rules, but, with appropriate preparation, quick responses, and a working knowledge of wildlife, everything will be safer during your adventures. Also, buy that bear spray. 

Cover Photo: Jacob W. Frank

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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