The Etiquette of Bear Country Travel

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

Special Report by Michael Kundu, Misty Fjords National Monument in Southeast Alaska

In the high Northwest, there are places where bears vastly outnumber humans. In British Columbia’s Khuzematin Valley, the Yukon’s Tatsanshini River Valley or on Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska, bears are the reigning mammal. Nevertheless, in such areas, most human visitors who rightfully acknowledge these bears’ dominion have successfully managed, for many, many years, to cultvate a symbiotic relationship by practising the art of ‘bear-wise’ behaviour.

Closer to home, bears roam throughout our favorite northwest recreational areas. While a fewer number of people visit the more remote northern grizzly bear strongholds, the more accessible central Puget Sound wilderness regions, like Olympic National Park, Issaquah’s Tiger Mountain and the Mount Baker Wilderness, contain a respectable number of the smaller, more prolific black bear. It is rumoured that the North Cascade ecosystems also harbours a very small, remnant grizzly population.

As a result of society’s generally growing trend toward outdoor recreation, it is very likely that encounters between bears and people will increase in frequency. As a result, hikers or mountain bikers in forested areas are already encountering bears more often. In most circumstances, these interactions will result in a privileged opportunity to view a majestic, impressive inhabitant which epitomises the spirit of wilderness.

Occasionally however, when these encounters are unexpected, they lead to a good fright for the hiker, or potentially, the death of the bear. In the most extreme and tragic circumstances, a surprised bear may attack, and even kill, the hiker. To adequately diminish the frequency of these ‘bad’ encounters, wilderness travelers are obligated to educate themselves about the appropriate etiquette of bear country travel.

Traveling in Bear Country: Rules of Conduct

Traveling in bear country is, by comparative statistics, a thousand times safer than driving a busy highway to work each day. Bears tend to avoid humans, and if encountered, their most frequent response -- even the larger ones -- is to run away. Only in rare instances will a bear respond to an encounter by attacking. Since black bear behaviour is markedly different from that of grizzlies, one of the best things a bear country traveler should do is learn the visible difference between the two species. By following these few common sense rules, hikers can avoid an unpleasant bear encounter.

Be Aware of Bear Signs:
Berries in season, large growths of skunk cabbage and fresh game carcasses all attract bears. Learn to identify bear scats and be on the lookout for fresh tracks. In spring, lowland wet areas full of skunk cabbage plants are popular bear ‘salad buffets.’ In July or August, salmon spawning streams regularly attract bears. Be careful when approaching streams through dense grasses or brush.

Eliminate the Scent of Foods:
Hikers should always carry their foods and fragrant toiletries in sealed, airtight containers. Never, under any circumstances, take food into a tent at night. This rule includes toothpaste, shampoo, soap, gum, insect repellent and deodorant. Keep bear deterrent pepper spray in a sealed, scent-proof plastic bag as well. Another rule is to eat without spilling foodstuff on clothing or wiping mouths with your sleeve. It should be noted that it is also illegal to use foods to ‘bait’ or lure bears for viewing or photography purposes.

Avoid Surprising a Bear:
Audible sounds are necessary when traveling in dense brush areas. Mountain bikers should take particular note, since they are most likely to come up on a bear unexpectedly. Talk casually, tie a bell to your pack or bike, or travel in small groups. Bears bury half-eaten game carcasses in shallow dirt caches; avoid areas that smell of dead fish or decaying meat. Travel in groups; bear attacks have almost never been documented on people walking in close groups of three or more. Black bears are likely to be scared aware by shouting and waving arms; grizzlies consider such action as provocation to attack.

Avoid Female Bears with Cubs:
Mother bears of both species who feel their cubs are endangered are highly aggressive. A hiker encountering a bear cub should immediately assume the mother is present and slowly retreat in a safe direction. Never approach a ‘cute’ baby bear. Sometimes, cubs may remain with their mothers for up to 2 years, so never assume that cubbing season is ‘over’. Defensive mother grizzly bears will usually pursue a hiker for over 100 meters. Remember that bears, like humans, will use well traveled forest paths and trails.

Never Crowd or Approach Bears:
Bears have an ‘approach threshold’ that will trigger a fight/flee response. These thresholds vary by individual bear (black bears are more skittish than grizzlies,) but should be assumed to be about 100 meters. If bears are spotted in the distance, definately give them a wide berth. Mothers with cubs are fiercely protective and may approach to investigate human scents even if they are 500 meters away. Charging black bears sometimes enact false charges, ending without contact; but be aware; grizzlies usually follow through with an attack after charging.

Never Run From a Bear Encounter:
Bears can outrun horses for short bursts and have been clocked at over 60 kilometers per hour. A fleeing human or mountain biker will frequently trigger a pursuit response. Instead, wave your arms and talk loudly (don’t shout) at the bear. If a black bear approaches you, try to hold your ground first. If this fails, walk backwards gradually until you are a safe distance away, than move clear of the area.

Do Not Depend on Firearms:
Killing a bear is a tragedy, and is most often unnecessary. Guns tend to make hikers overconfident and unobservant, and even the most powerful caliber handgun is still inadequate to stop a charging bear. Ironically, more people been accidentally shot while carrying guns in bear country for protection, than killed in a bear attack.

Consider Carrying Pepper Spray -- But Carefully!
Pepper spray is a good last minute deterrent when used properly, but it must be stored in a plastic bag and considered as a source of latent bear attractant because of its inherent red pepper scent. Select a brand containing at least 10% Oleoresin Capsicum in a container size of at least 165 grams (6 ounces.) Make sure the unit has a safety ring and carry it in a ziplock plastic bag to contain the inherent pepper smell, which might inadvertently attract bears. Make sure you test the unit each year and discard it when it is expired.

In the Rare Event An Attack Occurs:
Surrender. As hard as it may seem, you have no chance of fighting an animal outweighing you by at least 300% and used to ripping 1000 kg. logs to shreds. The best surrender response is to play dead; collapse on the ground in a tight fetal position, covering the back of your neck with clenched fingers. The bear will probably bite your head and tear at your groin region until it thinks you are no longer a threat. At that point, it will usually retreat. Endure it. If you continue to move and show signs of resistance, the pain and injury will only be worse.

While some pamphlets suggest fighting back against black bears, attack survivors who have tried this suffered far more severe wounds than those who remained motionless. The only exception is if you experience an unprovoked attack where the bear continues biting long after you assume a defensive posture. In that case, fight for your life; you are the victim of a very rare predatory assault in which the bear considers you as food. Consider this last point in perspective: there are only about 6 reported cases of predatory attacks on record.

Bears are intelligent, curious, intimidating and awe-inspiring. Most importantly, bears are symbolic of wilderness. There is an intrinsic satisfaction in the knowledge that the forest one travels still sustains these large, lumbering omnivores which carry three times the biomass of a human. Knowing bears exist in an area is, perhaps, the most pronounced reminder that a wild place is still wild. By following the few preceding precautions, one can confidently avoid the fabled ‘bad bear’ experiences that have lead to the extermination of these noble creatures from many wilderness areas throughout North America.

Bears live in the wilderness for survival; humans roam the wilderness by leisurely choice. Anytime you travel in bear country, you are venturing into their habitat. Respect and appreciate these marvelous creatures, learn about their habits and you will help to protect a truly integral element of our diminishing wilderness.

Bears: A Guide to Distinguishing North America’s Bears

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Distinctively (protruding) dog-like snout, no hump in shoulders; short hair on face, claws generally catlike and small and retractable.
Colour: ranges from white (Kermode on Princess Royal Island, B.C) to cinnamon brown and black, sometimes with a white V-marking on chest. Weight: ranges from 120 to 450 lbs.
Length: ranges from 4 to 7 feet
Height: ranges from 3 to 4 1/2 feet
Range: Found all across North America except middle south-west states and Canada’s Eastern Nunavut (formerly know as the Eastern Northwest Territories); highest concentrations in Rocky Mountains; North-eastern US and Quebec regions. Prefers forested lowlands with dense brush; seldom seen higher than 7,000 feet.
Sign: Scats are cylindrical dark brown, similar to dogs, full of grasses, leaves, fur and seed fragments. Tracks are asymmetrical, hind pawprints 7-9 inches long, 5 inches wide, showing 5 toes, seldom with claw indentations visible, unless in very soft ground.

Brown (Grizzly) Bear (Ursus arctos)
Concave ‘dish’ face profile, distinct hump in shoulders, long, wide and bulky claws that do not easily retract, may have silverish tinge to fur, which is brushy and visibly dense, matted.
Colour: ranges from chocolate brown to yellowish, sometimes silverish, rarely black. Often has white-tipped hairs, hence the term, ‘grizzly’. Brown and grizzly bears are considered variations of one species.
Weight: ranges from 320 to 1,500 lbs.
Length: ranges from 6 to 8 feet
Height: ranges from 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet
Range: Western species found predominantly in mountain states and provinces and the barren grounds of Western Northwest Territories. Highest concentration is Yukon, Alaska, BC, with a few isolated populations found in Western Mountain states. Prefers semi-open mountainous uplands and tundra regions; frequently found in west coast rainforest areas.
Sign: Scats are similar to black bears but larger. Conceals carrion under shallow mounds of soil or branches. Beds down in thickets, oval shaped depressions lined with pine needles and mosses. Tracks are asymmetrical, hind pawprints 10-17 inches long, 7-8 inches wide, showing 5 toes, usually with prominent, wide indentations made by claws.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Unmistakable white, long, lean and massive bear with long neck, largest bear in North America
Colour: Always variations of white with black nose and eyes.
Weight: ranges from 1000 to 1500 lbs.
Length: ranges from 7 to 12 feet
Height: ranges from 4 to 4 2/3 feet
Range: Found only in maritime coastal regions along the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea and Hudsons/James Bay thoughout the Northwest Territories and northerns parts of Nunavut. Their range sometimes coincides with coastal Northwest Territory barren ground grizzly. Sign: Scats are cylindrical dark brown, and primarily animal matter with bones, fur fragments. Tracks are more symmetrical than other bears species; pawprints 12-13 inches long, 9 inches wide, showing 5 toes with claw indentations. Polar bears are active throughout the day and are excellent swimmers. Stalking of humans or predatory attacks by polar bears are reported more often than with any other bear species.

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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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Copyright A. Michael Kundu