Kim Titchener: Bear Safety Basics

Too close for comfortBear 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.