Precautions in bear country
- by Michael Morris, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks
- April 11, 2002
Persons travelling in bear country should not take bear safety lightly. Your best protection is awareness of bear activity and practicing avoidance techniques.
When travelling in bear habitat consider if a bear could perceive your presence soon enough to avoid an encounter. A surprised bear can be aggressive especially if it is feeding or protecting cubs. In the vast majority of instances, a bear that picks up on the approach of a person melts into the bush. We can never know how often we have passed such a bear with out realizing it.
The most useful and easiest tactic a person can employ is to simply make noise. The human voice is a distinctly foreign sound in the bush. It does not matter what is said, just say it loudly! Bells are frequently used for this purpose, but their high pitch carries poorly and they can be tiresome to listen to all day. It is more effective to use your voice. Hiking in groups works well as people in groups talk more.
Consider the environment in which you are travelling. Dense, wet vegetation absorbs sound. Rushing streams or wind also cover human sound and scent. Make louder and more frequent sounds in these situations. Streams also cause air to flow down valley. Hikers walking up a trail along a rushing stream need to pay extra attention to making their presence known.
Always look around. When walking on rough ground, hikers spend most of their time looking down. Make an effort to keep looking around, especially if you are first in line. Binoculars help in scoping out large open areas such as meadows before you enter them. Avoid wearing perfumes or carrying especially smelly foods. Bears are curious because a new smell may mean a new food source.
When camping in bear habitat, consider the following:
- Choose a campsite that is off a natural travel corridor. Bears will use a path of least resistance.
- Plan to cook well away from your tent so if a bear does come by later to check out the inevitable cooking spills, you won’t be there.
- Choose to bring along simple to prepare foods that have little scent, i.e. oatmeal instead of bacon for breakfast.
- Keep food out of the tent.
- Carry 15 metres of rope for hanging food. Remember black bears climb trees well, so hang it off a branch, out of reach. Where there are only very small trees such as in subalpine areas, stash your food away from camp.
- Avoid campsites where litter is present. This could be a sign of a bear that has learned to associate people with food.
Should you encounter a bear, stay calm. Most likely nothing will happen. Do not approach the bear. Speak in a calm voice to let the bear figure out what you are. Back away slowly. Don’t make eye contact.
If you are charged; climb a tree if you have time, otherwise drop to the ground with your knees tucked into your chest and clasp your hands behind your neck. This shows the bear you are not aggressive. Most charges are a bluff. If the attack continues from a black bear, fight back. Remain in the tucked position when attacked by a grizzly.
Guns are very effective at killing bears, if you know how to use one. However, hunters are injured more often by bears than non-armed persons. This could be attributed to a few factors. Hunters injure bears and are then attacked. Armed persons take more chances in bear habitat. Hunters have been attacked near carcasses that a bear has claimed.
Pepper spray is a non-lethal weapon that has successfully repelled bears. However, it must be used at very close range. The spray would be useful in a camp situation where a bear showed increasing boldness over time. Removing the attractant is a better strategy.
While bears generally avoid settled areas, they can be attracted to communities by garbage and food left outside. Once bears learn to associate people with food they loose their normal aversion to people and become a safety concern. As a result, Conservation Officers in British Columbia kill about 800 black bears and 50 grizzly bears each year. These numbers can double in years with poor berry crops.
If you live in a community or acreage near bear habitat, make sure you are not attracting bears to your home, and thus placing bears, your family and your neighbours at risk.
- Keep garbage in a secured building until pick-up day.
- Keep dog food, fish or meat remains indoors.
- Pick fruit as it ripens and clean up windfalls promptly.
- Clean barbecue grills or store them inside.
- Consider electric fences for bee hives, chicken coops, or compost piles if they are a continuing attractant.