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Bear Safety and Defense–Important Do’s and Don’ts

Jim Burnett
Article Date:  May 17, 2007

Some of the best spots in the world for outdoor recreation are also home to bears, and few wild animals seem to inspire a greater range of emotions and reactions in humans than bruins. From stuffed toys to mascots for sports teams and from the subjects of TV documentaries to “actors” in ads that promote everything from vehicles to personal care products, bears seem to pervade our culture. As a result there are a lot of misconceptions about these magnificent animals.

Outdoor educators and group leaders may find some surprising recent developments in bear safety and defense. Hikers, campers, photographers, hunters and even casual tourists need to know how to reduce the risks of bear encounters–and how to respond if they encounter a bruin in the wild. Even in prime bear habitat such as Yellowstone or Alaska, chances of an untoward experience can be reduced by following a few basic guidelines.

Experts such as Dr. Tom Smith, formerly of the Alaska Science Center, Chuck Bartlebaugh of the Center for Wildlife Information, and members of The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) offer the following strategies for minimizing the risks of injury in a close encounter of the worst kind. I’ll also include links to free, on-line resources that provide valuable training materials for any outdoor educator.

Education. Get reliable information about bears and bear safety. One thing’s for certain—the actions of the characters in those TV commercials don’t qualify as good advice! Two great places to start on-line are Dr. Smith’s article Safe Conduct in Bear Country and the Center for Wildlife Information’s Be Bear Aware site. (If you’re reading this off-line, complete web addresses for these and all other sources listed are included at the end of this article.)

Dr. Smith notes, “…we see that a large number of bear-human encounters could have been avoided had people done the right things (e.g., store food properly, make noise while hiking through dense brush, not pushing bears when attempting to photograph them, etc.).”

Avoidance. Don’t do things which are likely to attract bears to your location. This includes appropriate use and storage of food and scented personal care items, plus proper campsite location, layout and hygiene. Even washing and cooking water or spilled fuel from stoves can attract bears to camp. Dr. Smith’s article cited in the previous paragraph includes detailed tips on camping in bear country and information about bear-resistant storage containers (PDF) is available on the IGBC website.

If you do see a bear, keep your distance. What’s a safe buffer? Various national parks suggest—or require—that you stay anywhere from 100 yards to ¼ mile from bears. Now you know why you bought that great telephoto lens or spotting scope! Make local inquiry about guidelines when visiting national parks or similar areas.

No surprises. Dr. Smith notes that “the greatest contributing factor to bear attacks is surprise…. Bear attacks have consistently occurred in habitats where visibility is poor, underscoring the fact that given a chance, most bears will avoid a conflict with people.” Mick Holm, Superintendent of Montana’s Glacier National Park, notes that “Your best defense is to avoid a bear encounter in the first place by making your presence known. Bells are usually not loud enough; instead, you should call out or clap at frequent intervals, being especially vigilant near streams and at blind spots on the trails.”

Proper Response. Know what to do if you find yourself in a potential conflict with a bear. Experts have different advice about dealing with black vs. grizzly bears, so check with rangers or wildlife officials in the area where you live or plan to visit. Links to helpful information are included on the wildlife safety page on my website.

Good Defense. Bear Spray is a defensive product and is no substitute for following the above precautions. However, it can help tip the odds in your favor in the event an attack is imminent. The active ingredient in bear spray is extracted from hot red peppers, so bear spray is sometimes referred to as “bear pepper spray.” It’s extremely important to avoid simply calling these products “pepper spray,” because many people mistakenly purchase and carry one of the numerous types of personal defense or law enforcement pepper sprays designed for use against other humans rather than bears. The products are definitely not the same!

Chuck Bartlebaugh, Director of the Center for Wildlife Information, cites a recent survey of hikers in Glacier National Park. Out of 50 hikers contacted who were carrying a defensive spray, only 15 had a product certified for use against bears. Only purchase and carry bear spray products that meet EPA standards and are clearly labeled “for deterring attacks by bears.” Carrying the wrong product can create a false sense of security and put the person at risk when it doesn’t perform as needed during a bear encounter

Bartlebaugh suggests the following specifications when purchasing bear spray:

  • A spray distance of 25 feet under optimum conditions. (Factors such as wind, moisture and the age of the canister itself can all reduce the effective distance of the product.)
  • Minimum spray duration of 6 seconds;
  • Minimum net content of 7.9 ounces or 225 grams.

Bear experts offer the following additional recommendations:

  • Carry the bear spray in a quickly accessible location such as a hip or chest holster. If faced with a charging bear, you don’t have time to start digging in your pack. In your tent, keep the spray readily available next to your flashlight.
  • Bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear. These products are only effective when sprayed as an airborne cloud and make direct contact with the eyes and nose of an approaching animal.
  • These products are not a repellent and should never be applied to people, tents, packs, other equipment or the surrounding area. Research at the Alaska Science Center found that the residue from the spray may actually attract bears, even several days after the product was used!
  • Keep a firm grip on the canister and aim slightly down and toward the approaching bear; many people tend to aim too high, which could allow the bear to run under the cloud of spray.
  • Don’t forget that a bear can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Try to spray early enough so the bear, if charging, runs into the widest bear pepper spray cloud and has time to react to the product. If possible, spray when a charging bear is still 30 to 40 feet away.

For more important information on bear spray see on-line articles by Dr. Tom Smith and the Center for Wildlife Information. These products are a great safety tool—if you know how to use them properly.

There are some differences of opinion about whether a canister of bear spray should ever be “tested,” even in a safe location. “Test firings” reduce the amount of spray available in the can if the product is ever actually needed, leave a residue on the spray nozzle than may be an attractant to bears or a potential contaminant for the individual carrying the canister, and present the possibility of an accidental exposure to the user.

It is, however, important to know how to use bear spray before you need it. Inexpensive training canisters, which look and operate like the real thing, contain the propellant but no active ingredient. They’re available from the same companies that sell the spray. An on-line video on the use of bear spray and other backcountry tips is available on the Backcountry Trip Planner page on Yellowstone National Park’s website.

Finally, what about firearms as a more effective defense against bears? In addition to the fact that carrying weapons is against the law in areas such as national parks, many people will probably be surprised by the following information from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

“… based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with [bear] pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research—a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.” For the complete text of this publication, see “Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which Offers Better Protection?” (PDF)

The chance to see and even photograph a bear in the wild can be a thrilling experience if people follow good procedures. However, in today’s world, I suppose I must include the disclaimer that the above is for information purposes only, and I can’t guarantee that even if you follow all the rules, you’ll be 100% safe from a problem with a bear in the wild. However, if outdoor educators, resource professionals and recreationists will get accurate information, share it with others, and combine that knowledge with good judgment, both people and bruins will benefit from the continued survival of wild bears in today’s world.

Websites for publications cited and additional on-line information.

Here are the complete website addresses for publications cited in this article.

Glacier National Park Video on Bear Safety https://www.nps.gov/archive/glac/video/avbear.mov (Quicktime)

Center for Wildlife Information at https://www.centerforwildlifeinformation.org/ has excellent downloadable publications, including: “Be Bear Aware,” “Bear Spray – What Retailers and Consumers should know about Bear Spray,” “Hiking and Camping in Bear, Cougar and Rattlesnake Country Instructor’s Guide,” and” Who’s Who” (a 4-page guide to identifying black and grizzly bears).

Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee site at https://www.fs.fed.us/r1/wildlife/igbc/ includes a Bear Safety link to articles about IGBC Certified Bear-Resistant Containers and Bear Pepper Spray.

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency includes links to companies which sell “Acceptable Registered Bear Deterrent Products In United States” on its website: https://www.epa.gov/region08/toxics_pesticides/pests/beardeter.html

U.S.G.S. Alaska Science Center, Biological Science Office. Very useful articles based on sound scientific research include “Bear Safety (Safe Conduct in Bear County),” “Bear Pepper Spray: Research and Information,” and “A Century of Bear-Human Conflict in Alaska: Analyses and Implications.” The site is: https://www.absc.usgs.gov/research/brownbears/brownbears.htm

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has several very useful “fact sheets,” including “How to Avoid Grizzly Bears”, and “Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which Offers Better Protection?” on their site: https://www.r6.fws.gov/species/mammals/grizzly/fact_sheets.htm

Wildlife safety tips from a variety of agencies and organizations are included on my website at https://www.heyranger.com/index_files/Page977.htm

Yellowstone National Park’s “Backcountry Trip Planner” includes a video on the use of bear spray at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountrytripplanner.htm

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