Bear attacks are on the rise this year. In August 2013, six bear attacks occurred in five U.S. states in the span of one week and officials at Yellowstone National Park claim that bear attacks in the park have risen 64 percent since last year. Now, wildlife experts are emphasizing personal safety and protective measures among campers, hikers, and other outdoor hobbyists in order to help reduce the number of these terrifying, sometimes fatal encounters.
Kim Titchener is a human/wildlife conflict specialist who serves as the administrator for Bear Safety & More, a website that aims to promote harmonious interaction between people and the bears (as well as other wildlife) they encounter in the woods.
Brad Nehring: How common are bear attacks?
Kim Titchener: Bear attacks are rare. Considering how many bears are on the landscape and number of people in bear country, the numbers are quite low for attacks. That being said, people are increasingly the cause of bear deaths. Bears seem to have much more to fear of us than us of them.
We head out into the woods without learning how to behave in bear country and we build homes and industry in bear habitat without contemplating how we will adapt to coexist with these animals. From fragmenting habitat to leaving garbage out on the back deck to running with ear buds, we continue to use words like ‘problem bear’ when human-wildlife conflicts occur. The reality is that we have a ‘people problem’ in North America’s bear country and the solution is bear education and a higher level of respect for the animals that we share these spaces with.
Which areas of North America do bear attacks most commonly occur?
Grizzly bear attacks occur throughout the areas they live in Western Canada and the United States. Black bears are more widespread across Canada and the U.S. and occur throughout these regions.
Would you characterize most bears as ‘aggressive’, ‘defensive’, or a combination of both?
Predatory or non-defensive attacks are extremely rare. Defensive attacks by a bear that is surprised by a person, or defending a carcass or cubs is more likely. To avoid a defensive encounter make noise often, be aware of your surroundings by looking for signs a bear has been there and travel in groups. Making noise gives a bear time to be aware of your presence and move out of the area.
Carrying bear spray won’t stop you from running into a bear but it is a great tool to use if a bear approaches as it can incapacitate the bear so you can back away and get to safety.
How much does bear behavior differ by species?
Most of us who do bear safety training teach people to look at the situation and behavior of the animal instead of focusing on the species. Sometimes in a bear encounter you may not be able to tell if it is a black bear or grizzly. Grizzlies are more likely to be defensive when surprised, or when you come across them on a carcass or with cubs, but black bears can also be defensive in these situations.
What are some of the most effective ways to repel bears or prevent them from wandering over to your campsite?
Bears have a keen sense of smell and curiosity about the world. Anything that has a smell from empty bottles, to human food or tooth paste can attract a bear into your campsite. Bears are even attracted to petroleum products. If you are at your site, you can have these items out, but when you leave, even if for a few minutes everything should be packed up and put in your vehicle, hard sided trailer or in a bear proof storage container. Never eat or leave food in your tent.When you go to sleep at night ensure everything is packed away and put your bear spray in the tent next to your head.
Are there any foods that bears are particularly attracted to?
In many parts of Canada and the United States, bears get exposed to human food. Once a bear has got into garbage or people food they can become addicted to it and will choose these sources of food over natural foods like berries. It is where the saying a fed bear is a dead bear comes from as many bears who become addicted to human food also get into conflict with people, ending with them being shot and/or injury of people and property.
Are bears more or less likely to invade your space if there is a dog or other pet present?
I’m not aware of any research that a dog increases your chance of an encounter. Rather, they create another variable to the situation. If your dog is off leash and runs ahead and into a bear, it may lead the bear back to you. There have been cases of people being mauled because of such situations. An off leash dog may also be aware of a carcass ahead before you and come upon a cougar or bear on the kill. This can be very dangerous for your pet and you.
What should someone do if they encounter a bear during a hike? What shouldn’t they do?
Take a breathe and think about the situation. There are numerous situations you can get into with a bear.
I see a bear in the distance, but it doesn’t see me. Enjoy this amazing moment and then back away and leave. Do not make the bear aware of your presence.
I come upon a bear and I have surprised it, it has cubs or a carcass. These are good reasons for a bear to feel defensive and express signs of anxiety and a need for space. The bear may start to huff, pop its jaw, salivate and appear distraught. This situation can lead to a defensive bear attack. Give the bear space by backing away and reassure it with a calm voice. At the same time, get out your bear spray, take off the safety and be prepared as the bear may charge you either as a bluff charge or attack. If you do not have bear spray or the bear spray does not work, fall to the ground and play dead just before the bear makes contact.
A bear approaches you for no reason or you become aware that it is following you. When a bear has no reason to be defensive and it approaches you this is called a non-defensive situation. It may lead to a non-defensive or predatory attack. Stand your ground. Make yourself look big. Throw rocks or pick up a stick and swing it around. If you have bear spray, pull off the safety and be prepared to spray if it gets within range. If the bear makes contact, fight back.
If a bear attacks you at night in your tent. Use your bear spray and if you do not have it, fight back.
We’d like to extend a big ‘thank you’ to Kim Titchener for taking the time to educate us about bear encounters and attacks! Have you had a run-in with a bear? Tell us about your experience.