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Wildlife When You Aren’t Hunting: Bears

Wildlife Warning: Bears
Flickr/David Restivo/NPS

Sometimes you just want to get out into nature without having to be on the hunt. And then you encounter a grizzly. 

When you do, it can be quite the shock to stumble upon an animal known as one of the world’s fiercest creatures. But, don’t panic, with the following information you’ll always be prepared for a bear encounter whether you’re looking for it or not.

How to avoid or react to a grizzly or black bear is pretty similar, but there are a few small differences. Still, it is good to know what you are dealing with, so at the very least you can tell your friends later.

Telling bears apart

Despite the names, color is not your best bet for distinguishing which type of bear you have encountered. Instead, look for the following features:

  • A prominent hump on the shoulder. If you see such a hump, you are dealing with a grizzly bear.
  • An indent on the face. If the snout comes out from a dip below the eyes, you are dealing with a grizzly bear. Black bears have straight snouts that extend directly from the brow
  • Very long claws (over two inches) indicate a grizzly bear.
  • The ears on a black bear are usually tall and somewhat pointed. Grizzly bear ears are usually small and rounded.
  • If you spot footprints, grizzly footprints generally have toes that line up in a, for the most part, straight line parallel with the palm. The toes of a black bear footprint tend to make an arc, rounding the palm. The claw indentations are less prominent on grizzly footprints due to their length and curvature.
Flickr/Neal Herbert
Black Bear – Flickr/Neal Herbert

Bring bear spray if you know the area you plan to hike or camp in is bear country and keep it handy. If you need it, it won’t do you any good tucked under a sandwich in your pack.

Make noise as you move, clapping and singing generally work well; this will help warn a bear you are coming and thus avoid surprising the bear. This practice is particularly important when you are upwind, in dense vegetation or going over hills/around bends where vision is limited, or along noisy water, such as creeks and rivers.

Strength in numbers

If possible take your trip with a group. More people means more noise. If you have children with you, keep them close by and towards the center of the group. If you encounter an animal carcass or it smells like there may be one nearby, avoid the area as a bear may be feeding nearby.

When at camp, avoid eating near where you sleep and secure all food, garbage, and waste in a bear container or by hanging them from a tree or bear pole if one is available at your camp site.

Even if you’re making plenty of noise, you may still encounter a bear on the trail, especially during dusk, dawn, or night. Generally avoid hiking at these times, but if you must-make sure you are not alone.

Flickr/User PLF73
Grizzly Bear – Flickr/User PLF73

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When you spot a bear and it is standing on its hind legs and grunting, don’t panic. It is most likely trying to get a better view, better scent or is showing an interest in something it has already smelled/seen. If and when the encounter happens DO NOT RUN. Running will signal to the bear that you are prey and will almost definitely chase you.

Also, avoid climbing trees. Black bears are excellent climbers and most grizzlies can reach a good ten feet into the air. If the bear is clacking its jaws or smacking its paws on the ground, it feels threatened. Stand your ground, get your bear spray ready, and talk to the bear in a firm, but monotone voice. The latter will indicate you are human and not prey.

Avoid eye contact and slowly back away. If the bear follows, prepare for the worst.

Continue to make noise and give the bear space to leave. Yell at the bear and throw non-food items at it or toss an item to distract the bear.

Defending the charge

If the bear charges, stand firm and use your bear spray. Most bear charges are bluffs and it will more than likely swerve off before striking. Maintain your stance and prepare for more bluffs as the bear may continue charging.

Image via Blogspot

On the off chance a bear is not bluffing and begins to physically attack, do not play dead or lie down. Protect yourself with whatever you have available, be it knives, rocks, sticks, water bottles, or even your hands and feet. Fight back and aim for the bear’s head, focusing on hitting the eyes, nose, and ears. If you have a firearm, whether hunting or not, do not fire a warning shot. Rather, aim for the center of the bear and shoot.

After returning from your bear encounter, be it simple observation or full-on encounter, let the local park ranger or sheriff know. Many times if a bear is spotted in a campsite it is because it has become habituated to humans or it is too young to have encountered them before, thus considering them prey.

It is important for both future outdoors lovers and the bears themselves that unsafe behavior on either end is documented and acted on.

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Wildlife When You Aren’t Hunting: Bears