I have become very aware of bears and concerned about what precautions to take since living in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. I used to live right in Lake Louise, a major bear territory and well known breeding area for grizzlies. Now I live in Canmore about an hour east of Lake Louise. I still have to be aware of bear activity in wooded areas around town and while hiking in the Canmore area.
I have yet to come in close contact with a bear, other than being in a vehicle and seeing one along the roadside. Any other bears I have had the privilege of seeing have been a safe distance away, and that’s just fine with me. However, I know and have worked with many people that have a bear tale or two to tell.
No two encounters with a bear are the same and there are no hard and fast rules. A lot of how a bear reacts to humans has to do with past experiences with human contact. There is some confusion and conflicting information about what to do around bears. I have tried to compile some of the most agreed upon information that I have learned while living in bear territory.
Where Can Bears Be Found In North America And When Are They Active?
The activity of bears depends on the location and the altitude of an area. They can come out of hibernating as early as late February and remain active into November and December in some places. In most mountainous areas where bears are common they are typically active from mid April to mid November.
Most Grizzly bears are found in Canada in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. Other than Alaska, Grizzly bear numbers have severely declined in the United States. There are some small numbers in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Montana.
The black bear is much more common. It lives in 4o of United States as well as northern Mexico and in every province of Canada, except Prince Edward Island.
How to Tell The Difference Between A Black Bear And A Grizzly
Identifying a type of bear can be a bit difficult, but it is important because what you need to do if you encounter one depends on what kind of bear it is. Colour is not a reliable way to identify a bear. Black bears are not just black in colour, they can be brown, blonde or cinnamon. To further confuse things, grizzly bears are sometimes referred to as brown bears, but can also be black in colour. Size is also a poor indicator as both bears can vary greatly in size.
Black bears have a longer snout, they have larger ears with more of a point to them. The black bears face has a straight line from the eyes to the end of the nose. Grizzly bears have short rounded ears, they have a distinctive hump on their shoulders. They have a dished in face with a clear depression between their eyes and end of the nose. The other distinctive feature of a grizzly bear is their very long claws, that can be up to four inches in length.
Don’t Rely On Bear Bells
Many park offices no longer sell bear bells and even discourage hikers from using them. People using bear bells get a false sense of security. The most important consideration when hiking in bear territory is to make sure that a bear can hear or sense you coming before it sees you. You need to take extra precautions when hiking into the wind, this limits the bears ability to smell you. If you are hiking near a river or waterfall it can make it difficult for the bear to hear you coming. Bear bells do not make enough noise. Sing or call out as you hike and clap your hands loudly.
Precautions To Take
- Travel with bear spray and have it in a spot that is quickly accessible
- Check with park officials about recent bear activity
- respect blocked or taped off areas and trails that have been temporarily closed due to bear activity
- Keep alert while hiking. Look for signs of bears, this includes bear droppings, tracks, digging, claw and bite marks on trees, turned over logs and rocks
- If you see a bear or recent signs of one let other hikers you come across know and report it to the local controlling authority
- Travel in groups, some areas of high bear activity have regulations in place that require a minimum number for your hiking group, stay close together while hiking, don’t leave people trailing behind
- Don’t wear scented products or perfumes, these can attract bears
- If you are hiking with food make sure it is in well sealed bags and does not have a strong odor
- Many experts recommend you leave your dog at home, if you do take your dog don’t let it run off leash, it may attract a bear and lead it right back to you
- be aware of animal carcasses, bears will hang around for days to protect their food
What If You Encounter A Bear?
- Stay calm, don’t make any sudden movements or loud noise
- Assess what the bear is doing, interpret its body language to determine its intentions
- have your pepper spray ready just in case
- If it does not seem to care about your presence or is unaware that you are there then back away slowly
- If it is looking at you then talk to it in a soothing, non threatening voice to let it know you are human, slowly raise your hands above your head and back away
- If there are two or more people, stay close together and back away as a group
- Never run, its instinct will be to chase, you will never be able to out run a bear, they can run as fast as a horse
- keep going in the direction you came from, don’t attempt to get around the bear by going off into the woods
- never turn your back on the bear, but don’t look it directly in the eyes, it may see this as a threat
- give the bear space to escape, it will most likely flee rather than attack you
- never try to navigate your way around cubs, it is very important to go back in the direction you came, the sow will never be far away from her cubs
- do not climb a tree to get away from a bear, black bears are excellent climbers, grizzly bears can reach up over 1o feet and have been known to scramble up trees as well. They will try to swat you out of a tree or even knock the tree down
- keep your backpack on, it will help protect you if you are attacked
Why Would A Bear Attack?
The most common reason for a bear to attack is when a mother bear is trying to protect her young. Other reasons include startling a bear, it may be defending its territory, getting too close to a bear while it is eating, or the bear is hungry or predatory.
Interpreting A Bears Body Language
When you first encounter a bear it may stand on its hind legs and move its nose around, it is usually to get a better look and try to identify you. If the bear is feeling threatened or upset it may put its ears back, lower its head, or swing its head from side to side or walk back and forth. It may paw at the ground, or make woofing or growling noises or if surprised it could charge without any warning at all.
If a bear looks you directly in the eye with its ears back it is definitely feeling threatened and you should take this warning seriously. If it begins to pop its jaw it is probably getting ready to charge. Other signs of an agitated or aggressive bear are if it starts to make false charges or ignores loud noises by continuing to approach.
When And How To Use Bear Spray
Bear spray can be used as a defense against a charging bear. Always hike with the container ready for immediate access. It’s not going to do you any good if you have to be digging it out of your backpack. There seems to be a lot of varying opinions about the effectiveness of using bear spray. Some of the controversy of the effectiveness may be due to improper use.
Using bear spray should be a last resort. It must be used within close range, which can require nerves of steel! You must hit the bear for several seconds in the face. You also have to take into account if there is any wind. The last thing you want to do is have the spray come back into your face. If you miss or the bear does not inhale enough of the spray you may have created a more dangerous situation. Now you have a very agitated and angry bear!
At first a bear might stand on its hind legs or make a deep grunting sound at you. It is warning that it is does not like your presence. Have your bear spray ready at this point.
If it starts to charge you (this is going to sound crazy and impossible) stay calm and hold your ground. I’m actually laughing to myself as I am typing this, I’m sure I would have either run, passed out or had an accident in my pants by this time! But in all seriousness most initial charges by a bear are a bluff, they will usually stop at about 2o to 3o feet away. The time that there is an exception to this is if the bear has cubs. Then there is a higher chance she will charge with a real intent to attack.
Do not use your bear spray yet. If the bear gets on it hind legs again, lets out more growls or lunges forward again then get prepared to use your spray. You will have to be brave enough to withhold using it until the bear comes in close enough range to get a precise spray in the face.
What To Do If You Are Being Attacked By A Grizzly Bear
If you are attacked by a charging grizzly, lie on your stomach and play dead. Protect your head and neck with your hands. Grizzly bears attack in self defense and stop once they realize you are not a threat. Most grizzly attacks happen because they have been surprised while eating or feel a threat to their cubs.
Grizzlies rarely seek out humans for attack, unless they’re hungry and predatory. In this case they will try to kill and eat you. Most of the time a grizzly just wants to remove a threat. A Grizzly bear attack is much more serious because their weight alone can kill a person.
With a grizzly attack you don’t want to fight back, most attacks are not sustained. Only if it becomes clear that the bear is not going to stop attacking should you try to fight back.
What To Do If You Are Being Attacked By A Black Bear
Black bears are normally fearful and shy. They are primarily scavengers, not hunters and in most cases will run away when encountered by humans. If they do attack you it is usually not a defensive attack. They are treating you as prey. Most bear experts will tell you not to play dead during a black bear attack, they will not stop and leave you alone as in some cases with a grizzly. Fight back with everything you have, kick, punch, use any weapons you can get a hold of such as sticks or rocks. Try to give blows to the eyes and nose. Make as much noise as you can to intimidate the bear. If you show it you are willing to fight to the end there is more chance it will just give up.
In the case of a bear with cubs they will be attacking because they feel a threat to their young. Stay calm and don’t fight back or make noise at first. Drop to the ground and protect your head and neck with your hands. Once the bear sees no threat it will usually leave you alone. If it continues to attack then fight back.
Once a bear attack ends stay on the ground and do not get up until you are sure the bear is gone. There have been cases of the same bear attacking multiple times because the person got up too soon or ran after an attack. Get up slowly and walk away when you are certain it is safe to do so.