Here in Montana, we have a lot of wild creatures. More than one person has had close calls with Moose this year. We have deer, elk, coyotes. I even saw a lone red fox the other day on one of my hikes, but the one animal everyone wants to know about is bears. Everyone who comes out to visit our great state asks about bears. What precautions should we take? How dangerous are they? If we're going camping, should we get a gun? So many questions.
I've dealt with a lot of bears in my life. I've seen them when I was biking, and when I've been hiking. I've had bears visit my campsite in the middle of the night. I've seen Grizzlies in Glacier NP, and in Yellowstone. I've seen the rare white Spirit Bears in B.C., and the big brown bears in Alaska. I've been in bear dens, and I worked on a grizzly bear DNA study. The end result of all this is that a lot of people ask me what to do about bears.
black bearGrizzly (notice the shoulder hump!)
Talk Amongst Yourselves
What do people need to know if they're visiting bear country? Well first you should know a little about bear behavior. Bears aren't malicious beasts just waiting to attack people. In fact, if a bear knows that you're coming, and that you're a human, they often just leave of the area. Usually bears don't want to deal with annoying people. If a mother bear has cubs, all the more reason for them to flee to the safety of the forest. So, the first rule in bear country is to let bears know you're coming. Make noise, and not just any noise, but sounds that identify you as human. That means talking loudly, especially if you're in dense brush where visibility is limited. You'll see people wearing bear bells, or whistling to signal their approach, but the bear biologists I have traveled with don't recommend that. After all, other animals whistle, and bells are just confusing. You want to announce, very clearly, that you are a human, and talking (or even singing) is the clearest way to do that. Talk or sing if you're coming around a blind corner or if you're in heavy brush, or anyplace else where you and a bear could get too close. A surprised bear is a dangerous bear, so make sure they know you're coming.
I realize you can't talk all the time (your hiking companions would kill you), so there's still a chance you could startle a bear. If you find yourself too close to a bear, don't run. Bears are predators. When things run, they are prey. Predators chase prey, that's what they do. Don't run and it won't set off a bear's instinct to chase. Besides, a bear can run faster than you, so it won't do you any good anyway. Also, don't make eye contact, especially with a grizzly. They take it as a challenge to their authority, and you don't want to do that. instead, talk calmly and quietly so the bear knows what he's dealing with. Give a bear every opportunity to get away. I've come across several bears in the wild, including a few mothers with cubs, and I've always had success talking quietly and giving them plenty of space. When they start moving away, take a few slow steps the other direction. Distance is your best friend here, but move slowly. No sudden movements. I came across a mother black bear with a cub last year. I stopped, stayed calm, and talked quietly. The mother maneuvered herself between me and the cub. i took a tentative step back while I talked. She seemed okay with it, since she really only wanted me away from the little one. I took another step. All good, but we were on a curving trail. When I took one more step, the trees that defined the inside of the curve were suddenly between us. To the mother bear, I had disappeared, and suddenly not knowing where I was was a problem. She ran two steps toward me, until she could see me again, then she stopped. She wasn't coming after me, but with a cub nearby she needed to know where I was. If I had run, things could have gone bad.
Keep Your Distance
So my best advice in dealing bears is to avoid getting too close. Watch the area around you. Keep your eyes up, and your head in the present. Look as far ahead as you can while hiking. Look for bears, and if you see one, don't approach it. A human might have a zone of personal space that extends about three feet in every direction. A grizzly might feel have feel that its personal space extends fifty yards, or a hundred. Maybe you see one seventy five yards away and decided to get just a little closer for a photo. Ooops! The bear's comfort zone was seventy four yards, and you just crossed the line. Now a huge bear feels threatened and it's blaming you. You might see a bear and think it wouldn't hurt to get a little bit closer. After a few steps you see a little cub pop up out of the undergrowth. Trouble. Keep your distance and stay out of trouble.
If you're going to a national park, a state forest, or a national forest, the staff there will know where, specifically, there have been bear sightings. They'll have rules for how to deal with food and garbage, and pamphlets about how to act in bear country. Bears in different places have learned different behavior, so local info. is the best info. Talk to the rangers and get all the information you can before setting out.
Lastly, when people ask 'should I get a gun? or something similar I have some strong advice for them. No, no, and no. Don't think you should go out and get a gun if you're traveling in bear country. First off, You should only bring a gun if you are an experienced gun user who has a solid grasp of gun safety and handling. Otherwise you're just compounding your dangers. Second, if you are not an experienced shooter you won't have much success against a huge, aggressive bear. You'll be full of fear, nerves, and adrenaline. You'll have a lot of trouble handling a weapon safely, let alone getting off a shot good enough to stop a bear. Bears are much, much faster than you think. An angry one could be on you before you even think to aim. Last but not least, you could panic and shoot a bear that is really not a threat. You don't want to be responsible for the death of one of these great creatures because you overreacted and happened to be carrying the means to kill it. Instead, bring bear spray. It's a non-lethal deterrent that can send a bear running without having a nasty close encounter.