Wildlife Encounters: Staying Safe with Bears

Bear Safety

Bear attacks do make the news and the reason is an attack by a bear is news. Why is it news, because they are rare? According to Back Packer Magazine, on average less than three people are killed each year by bears. There are bear and other wild animal attacks every year of course that do not lead to death however.

In comparison 26 people in the United States are killed each year by dogs, and 90 people die each year from lightning strikes (Back Packer Magazine, n.d.).

Bears are not your only problem in the wild though. You could also encounter cougars, bison, moose, and of course, reptiles such as alligators and deadly snakes, depending on where you are hiking or camping.

Some Things That Can Put You at Risk for an Attack

Obviously there can be any number of reasons for an attack and not all of them can be listed, because in some cases, no one simply knows. The following however, are some of the more common reasons for an attack/encounter.

  • Surprising an animal 
  • Not making enough noise as you hike through an area
  • Startling a female with cubs present
  • Stumbling upon a carcass that an animal has claimed, or not claimed for that matter, but they will if they are near
  • Moving through the woods at night
  • Keeping food/garbage in camp that is not sealed in bear proof containers
  • Camping close to game kill sites when hunting

Other risk factors are food on your person or in camp and blood on your body/clothing from field dressing wild game or fish. Hunters are at risk as they field dress game, because predators will take advantage, and try to claim the kill as their own.

Ideally, you would not hunt alone where bears and mountain lions roam. One hunter would have to stand guard as the other field dresses the kill.

Then There is Stupid

Selfies are the craze today, and some people think that taking one with a wild animal would make for a good Facebook posting. Of course those with little experience in the wild just have to snap a picture with a cute cuddly bear or mountain lion cub.

The mother is not letting the children just roam free, they are close by, and one peep out of the cub and the mother is on her way, fast. Some people just have to push the limits, they simply do not understand they are visitors in the animals’ home, and some animals to include humans take umbrage at others wandering into their homes and messing with their kids and generally being a nuisance.

Do not try to sneak up on any wildlife to take pictures or to even try to capture or pet any animal or reptile.

Bears like Easy Food Sources

If black bears have lost their fear of humans, and some experts claim many have they will not hesitate to investigate you. Black bears can and will attack if they wander into your camp or even your backyard looking for food, if you get between them and their meal.

Bears have poor eyesight, but a much better sense of smell and hearing than humans do. Their nose is leading them on, and so they may approach without even seeing you. They smell the food on you, in your vehicle, or at your campsite.

Those that have lived through an encounter with black bears when cubs are not present claim that loud noises and hand gesture can run a black bear off. This of course is no guarantee you will not be attacked.

Brown bears (the Grizzly and the Kodiak are North American subspecies of brown bear) are another matter entirely, and they will not be intimated by you. They are apex predators in the wild without peers. Running to find the nearest tree is futile in most cases, because they can outrun you (bears can run up to 30 mph), and may even topple the tree you have climbed. Black bears and some brown bears can climb trees by the way.

Wildlife experts’ claim that playing dead can work with brown bears, but not with black bears. Black bears can be intimidated, bluffed if you will and may run off if you act aggressive. However, if cubs are present black bears will go on the offense and attack, because they are protecting their cubs.

A More Detailed List with Explanations

1.) Keep pets at home, or at the very least on a leash when hiking or camping, because they will attract predators. It does not matter how big your dog is they will not stand a chance going toe to toe with a bear or mountain lion. There are dogs trained to intimidate bears to keep them from coming back to certain areas, but the dogs are trained not to attack the bear as a domestic pet may be inclined to do. A bear will charge at your pet and will chase them in most cases if the pet runs. Your pet will likely run back to you if they have wandered from camp. This means the bear will follow the pet back to you.

2.) Seal food in special bear containers to prevent odors from escaping. One of the biggest reasons black bears wander into your camp is for food, and how do they know you have food, they can smell it. People even go so far as to feed bears when they are camping in parks and even around their homes. This of course trains the bears to expect food when humans are around, and if you disappoint them, and do not have their meal ready they will take their frustrations out on you.

3.) Do not wear clothing around camp or to bed that was worn when you field dressed any game or fish. Clean any footwear that may have had contact with blood from wild game or fish.

4.) Do not hike or camp alone, so if there is an animal attack someone can administer first aid and call for help.

5.) Carry bear spray and if so inclined carry a firearm of sufficient caliber.

6.)  Stay on marked trails and pay attention to what is around you, especially when walking around large obstructions. When hiking and you cannot see the trail ahead make noise as you move around obstacles that obstruct the trail ahead. Remember a bear’s eyesight is poor, but their hearing and sense of smell is not. Use your binoculars to scan ahead for any problem areas to avoid such as overhangs/caves and large root bases of downed trees these may be animal dens.

7.) Keep deodorants, soaps, and other hygiene items sealed in Ziploc bags because any smell can attract animals. Remove any clothes you have cooked in before bedding down for the night, because animals will be attracted to the cooking odors on your clothing. You can be mauled while sleeping because of the smell on your clothing. Avoid eating when in your bedding or even inside the tent because of crumbs and odors that will cling to the material. Do not wrap food up in bedding material to store or transport.

8.) Wash your hand thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning fish or game or after handling foods.

9.) If you encounter a bear and it is obvious you cannot back away to safety, because they are acting aggressively drop your pack if it contains food and then back away. This may distract the bear enough to allow you to move away. They can smell the food inside your packs and pockets. People have been attacked and have had a bear paw the pack off their backs and in the process of course severely injured the person.

10.) If you encounter a bear, or other predator, group together so you can retreat together. Show a larger presence to scare the predator off by staying together and by making noise and gestures. If attacked you have to fight back, you simply have no choice.

Back Packer Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015, from http://www.backpacker.com/news-and-events/news/trail-news/ask-a-bear-how-many-bear-attacks-really-2/

Be Bear Aware. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015, from http://www.centerforwildlifeinformation.org/BeBearAware/Hiking_and_Camping/hiking_and_camping.html