Over the past few decades, the number of bears in North America have significantly increased due to the enforcement of strict rules on deforestation and hunting wild bears.
This means that when heading into the national parks and forests, you’ll encounter more bears more often.
While it’s exciting to see a bear in the wild, encounters with this animal can pose a safety risk, which if not managed can result in serious injuries or even death.
However, you should keep in mind that bear attacks are not a common occurrence. According to the National Geographic News, the chances of a bear injuring a person are approximately 1 in 2.1 million.
Scientific reports have shown that human behavior is largely attributed to the bear attacks. People unknowingly engage in outdoor activities with risk-enhancing behavior, increasing the probability of potential bear attacks.
Each experience with each type of bear is unique, and being informed on the bear encounters can dramatically decrease the risk of an attack and help you survive in the event you are attacked. There’s no single strategy that guarantees safety, though.
The first step to avoid and survive a bear attack is, of course, to understand the types of bears you’re likely to meet in the area you plan to travel or where you live. The behaviors of bears are quite different.
There are three common bear species in North America: black bear, brown bear, and polar bear.
The black bear, also known as the American black bear, is without a doubt the most abundant bear species in North America. There are about 600,000 black bears, which are found mostly in woodlands and swamps in the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico where there’s a limited human presence.
Classified as an omnivore, the black bear diet comprises mainly of fish, small mammals, insects, carrion, nuts, and fruits. You’ll find black bears with different shades of brown and blond. However, those with black fur and a white chest usually dominate the list.
While this is the most abundant bear species, it is actually the smallest, with large specimens weighing up to 500 pounds. The length of a male adult bear ranges from 5 to 6 ft. When it rears back on its back legs, the length can increase up to 7 ft.
The main physical characteristic that easily differentiates the brown bear from the black bear is the conspicuous hump on the shoulder. The common brown bear subspecies found in North America are the grizzly bears and Kodiak bears.
Grizzly bears are the most aggressive brown bear variant weighing up to 1,000 pounds, and can kill large animals like elk and moose. The grey hair in the fur of this type of bear gives them a grizzled look, and that’s why they are called the grizzly bears. The bears can be found in dense forests, open plains, sub-alpine meadows, and arctic tundra. Most of the population is found in western Canada, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska. But Alaska boasts the highest number of grizzly bears (approximately 30,000). The ones that live in the neighboring 48 states in the U.S are as few as 1,200.
Kodiak bears, on the other hand, are the largest brown variant bears as they weigh up to 1,500 pounds. When a typical large male stands on hind legs, its length can reach up to 10 feet. This type of bears is named Kodiak, because they reside exclusively on the Kodiak Archipelago islands of Alaska. There are as much as 3,500 Kodiak bears in the region.
Both grizzly and Kodiak bears are omnivores and their diet can vary widely. They can feed on deer, fish, elk, berries, roots, grasses, as well as insects.
Polar Bears are regarded as hyper-carnivorous bears, have white or cream-colored fur and are the largest, and weigh nearly 2,000 pounds. The bears are an offshoot of the brown bear lineage, which is believed to have evolved to occupy the Arctic region. In North America, the polar bears are densely populated in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.
This group of bears has lots of characteristics that are adapted for survival in the freezing temperatures of their habitat. They can easily move across the snow, ice and even open water while they hunt and kill the seals. Approximately 70 percent of their diet comprises of seals. They also eat smaller mammals, carrion, and walruses.
The polar bears are considered the most vulnerable bear species due to the fact that their habitat is subject to climate changes. As the World Conservation Union has it, the number of polar bears in the wild has drastically reduced to only about 20,000.
After exploring the main species of bears in North America, it’s time we dive into the safety considerations and how to prevent an attack.
You should never approach bears. Each type of bear has a distance within which they feel threatened. Certain bear behaviors could be a sign of aggression, meaning you’ve entered a threatening space.
Some of the warning signs that the bear wants you to get out of its territory include blowing with clacking teeth, looking you in the eye with its ear pulled back, or hitting the ground with its paws. The female bears with cubs are quite violent and typically need extra space. They may attack you aggressively when they perceive you as a potential danger to her and their cubs.
It is also important to pay special attention to your surrounding and make sure you avoid areas with berry bushes or the smell of fish carcasses or other animals. And the fact that the bears also love human’s food and have a way better sense of smell compared to dogs, you should not set up camp anywhere near the trails they might use.
Using a bear pepper spray is an excellent way to prevent an aggressive, charging, or attacking bear. Based on the 2008 study on the efficacy of bear deterrent spray in Alaska, red pepper spray was 92% effective in stopping the aggressive behavior on brown bears, 100% on polar bears, and 90% on black bears. Only 2 percent of the people with bear sprays were left injured during close encounters with bears.
So, it’s recommended to always carry it when you’re exploring areas populated by any bear species. However, you should learn and practice how to use the spray correctly. Make sure you practice outdoors. The effective distance of the spray usually varies depending on the manufacturer.
Generally, pepper sprays can be effective when sprayed at a charging or aggressive bear from an average distance of roughly 13 feet. If the bear moves slowly, you can deploy the spray when it 20 to 30 feet away. For the charging bear, start spraying when the bear is 60 feet away or less.
When buying a bear pepper spray, make sure you go for the EPA approved. Also, confirm if it is recommended by your national park. The place where you wear the spray also matters a great deal. It can help you to avoid scenarios where you’re fumbling for the spray if you run into an aggressive bear. Well, experts recommend wearing the spray on a holster in front of your body.
Bears don’t like surprises and may respond aggressively. Noise is your first line of defense. You should yell and shout as much as you can whenever you’re hiking or walking through blind spots, near loud streams, and traveling upwind. It sends a message to the bears that a person is nearly, and most of them would avoid encounters with a human.
Instead of relying on your voice you can use other tools to generate effective noises, preferably the whistles. Bear bells are also common in this case but, unfortunately, they are not loud enough.
Lone travelers face a greater risk of attacks by bears. 91 percent of the bear attacks reported in Yellowstone National Park since 1970 were connected to lone hikers or those in the company of one person. Groups are effective because they tend to create a lot of noise and appear more intimidating to wild bears.
If you can’t manage hiking in groups, then you can bring your dog along to scare away the bears. You’ll need to check first that the area is open for dogs. If dogs are allowed, be sure to keep your dog on a leash so that you have control over her when hiking.
Bears use roads and trails like humans, and most of them will avoid encounters with humans if they hear them coming. To be on the safer side though, you must use only the maintained trails. People that hike off-trail are more likely to run into bears that attack them.
If you are hiking in places populated by grizzly bears, you should keep in mind that the bears are very active at night, dawn, and dusk.
When a bear has noticed you and wants to attack you, your next course of safety actions will be different depending on the type of bear. This is where identifying the bear species is very useful.
Most black bears are likely to back down from launching an attack if you stand your ground but wave your arms slowly, or throw things and yell at them. The idea is to show the bear that you’re not a prey animal. Some of the curious bears might stand on the rear legs or move closer to get a better smell or look of you, and then turn away at the last second.
With a black bear, you can try and defend yourself. You don’t have to play dead. Fight back with whatever objective you may have or anything around you like rocks and sticks to hit the animal in the most sensitive areas, mostly the nose and face. You can also kick or punch it hard. If you manage to make an impact, the bear can be scared away or feel overpowered.
You’ll have a chance to escape to a more secure place. Most of the people get tempted to climb trees during surprise encounters with bears. A bear may be provoked to chase you when you not only run to a tree, but also if you frantically climb it. Worse even, it can climb the tree very fast and pull you down before you climb high enough to safety.
While you should stay calm as possible, you should never make sudden moments, imitate bear sounds, or throw anything at a grizzly bear as this can easily provoke the animal. Instead, you should slowly back away while ensuring that the bear is not following you. Move sideways to avoid tripping.
If you don’t have a bear pepper spray, you can play dead if a brown/grizzly bear makes contact with you. Don’t try to defend yourself; otherwise, you may end up increasing the intensity of the attack and suffer serious injuries. The recommended safety action is to just lie flat on your stomach and make sure you clasp hands on the back of your neck.
Besides that, you should spread your legs so that you remain firm on the ground, making it hard for the grizzly bear to turn you over. The animal may be convinced you are not a threat and give up, leaving you alone. But don’t be so quick to get up. Wait for several minutes while listening and looking around cautiously before making a move.
Based on the data compiled by Yellowstone National Park since 1970, the people that take advantage of this technique during an attack sustained only minor injuries 75% of the time. The fighting back option resulted in severe injuries 80% of the time.
There you have it! We hope you enjoyed reading this post, and be sure to follow the bear safety guidelines above to react to surprise attack or avoid risk-enhancing behavior that might attract bears to you.