Backcountry Bear Basics

Nice bears

Bears are back in the woods. There’s lots of folklore about what to do around them. Most of it wrong. Here, in a small book, is the latest straight dope about what you should do if you meet one — and how not to meet one.

-- KK 05/3/05


There are three key behaviors you need to be aware of:
1. The bear that approaches is usually in command of the situation.
2. The subordinate bear does not end an engagement with a dominant bear; the dominant bear is the first to leave.
3. Merely standing still has signal value; standing still will often alter the ongoing behavior of an approaching bear.

The magic circle around every bear is different and constantly changes in size and shape. As an example, the magic circle of a female grizzly with spring cubs will probably be larger than the magic circle of the same bear when she doesn't have cubs. ... Don't forget that you have a magic circle, too. A seasoned black bear biologist might be comfortable with a bear that's only 10 yards away, but you or I might be nervous about a black bear that's 40 yards away.

Years of experience in Denali and other national parks have proven that properly secured bear resistant food containers work.

For some reason, bears are interested in petroleum products. When they come across a spot of oil or gas on the ground, they sometimes roll in it like a dog rolls on a carcass. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, some bears looked like they'd been using Brylcream. My friend Hod Coburn, a bush pilot who's flown all over Alaska, told me that a black bear once got into a case of oil he stashed at a remote runway in the western part of the state. It didn't bite one can and assume there was more of the same in the others - it bit into every can.

What about tree-climbing? You startle a bear that's 100 feet away and decide to run and climb a tree that's only 10 feet away. The bear will arrive in about 3 seconds. You wouldn't have time to climb a stepladder, let alone a tree. Even full-grown black bears can scoot up any tree with astonishing speed. An adult grizzly can "ladder" its way up a tree if the limbs are right, with a known record of 33 feet high.

Bears key on movement and quickly notice a silhouette on a ridgeline. Steve French, an M.D. and bear researcher who's co-director of the Yellowstone Grizzly Foundation, has an excellent rule of thumb regarding the vision of bears; If you can see a bear, you should assume it can see you.

Black bears are creatures of the forest, so in response to a threat they've always had the option of slipping into the underbrush and hiding or climbing a tree. When threatened, black bears flee. Even when black bear biologists hold squalling cubs while mama bear is just yards away, the females almost always retreat. They may make a blowing sound and clack teeth and make a rush or two toward the biologists, but ultimately, they retreat.

Not so with grizzlies. Grizzlies evolved in more open terrain. At times, there wasn't enough cover for a female and her cubs to hide from other bears or mammals. There were no trees to climb. When threatened, a female had to defend her cubs.

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