he primary objective of this article is to better acquaint people with bears, their life history, their behavior and how humans
fit into their lives. This information will help you make more rational decisions while you are in bear country and/or when
you encounter a bear. Hopefully, you will then be in a better position to have a positive interaction with a bear, rather
than being faced with a threatening situation.
Since childhood we have been inundated with mixed signals about bears. On one hand we are thrilled and terrified with stories
of bears mauling and eating people for no reason. These fears are reinforced by our natural fear of something that is bigger
and more powerful than we are. Yet, on the other hand, we see trained bears in circuses and watch television programs in which
bears are cute, cuddly and kind. These bear images are reinforced by the stuffed “teddy bears” that offer companionship and security to millions of children. Unfortunately, neither of these extreme images we have about bears accurately
portray the truth about bears in their natural environment.
Anytime we travel off the beaten path we have a responsibility to both the bears and to ourselves to behave in a knowledgeable
and responsible manner. The more we understand about bears, the less we will fear the unknown. Hopefully, this article will
allow the reader to make rational decisions about how to avoid bear encounters and how to handle it if we do come fact-to-face
with them. However, it cannot be stressed enough, and I’ll repeat it several times in this article, bears as individuals
are very similar to humans, as well as other life on earth. Each and every bear on our planet has its own individual behavior.
We can make generalizations about bear behavior and most bears will follow genetic behavioral patterns. However, as individuals,
you may follow every guideline on how to behave when in a bear encounter, and still may be attacked. No one can predict a
bear’s behavior with 100% certainty.
Three species of bears live in the United States: the black bear; the brown/grizzly bear;
and the polar bear. Because each of these species has a different lifestyle, and somewhat different behavior patterns, it
is important to recognize what type of bear you are dealing with. Since the likelihood of encountering a polar bear is fairly
slim for most of us, we will mainly deal with black bears and brown/grizzly bears here.
Black bears are the smallest, and most abundant of the bear species in the USA. They are about 5 -
6 feet long and stand 2 - 3 feet high at the shoulders. They range from 200 to 500 pounds. While they are most commonly black,
other color phases include brown (cinnamon) and rarely gray (blue) and white. Muzzles are almost always brown. Black bears
can be distinguished from brown bears by: 1) their head shape (a black bears nose is straight in profile, a brown bear is
dished); 2) their claws (black bears are curved and smaller, brown bears are relatively straight and larger); 3) body shape
(when standing, a black bears rump seems to be higher than it’s shoulders; a brown bears shoulders are usually higher
than it’s rump); and, 4) by their ears (a black bears ears are more prominent than a brown bears ears).
Brown and grizzly bears are the same species. They can be over 8 feet long and stand 5 feet
tall at the shoulder. Weights are typically 600-800 pounds but can reach 1500 pounds in parts of Alaska. Colors range from
blonde to dark brown. A brown bear’s muzzle is the same color as its body. Cubs frequently have a white collar around
their neck and shoulders. The "dish face" and "large shoulder hump" are distinguishing features of the brown bear.
Bear Life History
Although bears are frequently creatures of habit, they are also intelligent and each has its
unique personality. The way a bear reacts is often dictated by its mother, the experiences it has had on its own and of course,
the instincts that nature provided. So, again, like other intelligent animals, such as dogs, we can make general statements
about bears but few people can accurately predict their behavior. The most important sense organ for a bear is its nose. They
have an incredible sense of smell, and they seem to trust their nose more than any other sense. Hearing and sight are also
important, but to a lesser degree. A bear’s hearing is probably better than ours, but not as keen as dogs. Their sight
is probably comparable to that of a human.
Both black and brown bears have similar life styles, although they do not usually
get along with each other (brown bears will kill and eat black bears). Where both species occur in the same area, black bears
tend to favor forested habitats while brown bears favor more open areas.
Bears are opportunists, relying on their intelligence and their senses to find food. They use differing habitats throughout
the year, depending on the availability of food and other necessities of life. The amount of area a bear covers in a given
year is partially dependent on how far it has to go to satisfy these basic needs. In some areas, individuals bears may have
a home range of less than a square mile. In other areas, home range can encompass hundreds of square miles. Males usually
range over larger areas than do females.
In the spring, black and brown bears come out of their dens. Males are usually the first bears to emerge, and females with
new cubs the last. When bears emerge from their dens, they are lethargic for the first few days, frequently sleeping near
their dens and not eating. When they do start eating, they seek carrion (dead moose, deer, etc.), roots and emerging vegetation.
In the early summer, bears continue to eat new grass and ferns as they develop. Moose calves, deer fawns and the like are
also important foods where they are available, as well as smaller critters such as ground squirrels. In areas where they are
available, fish, particularly salmon, are the most important food for bears from June through September. Other summer foods
for bears include berries and a wide variety of vegetation. Being omnivores and opportunists bears will eat almost anything
edible, and even kill the occasional adult deer, moose and the like. When bears kill or scavenge they commonly cover the portions
they cannot eat with sticks, leaves, and duff. A bear will remain near a food cache for days and will defend it from all intruders.
During the late summer and early fall, bears consume tremendous quantities of succulent fruits. As the season progresses
toward winter, a bear’s diet becomes more varied. The last remaining berries and fish are sought, as are live and hunter
killed deer, moose, elk, and caribou. This is the time that bears are trying to put on the final deposits of fat before their long winter naps.
In late fall and early winter bears move into their denning areas
and begin preparing a suitable den. Black bears usually den in holes excavated under large trees or rock outcrops, or a small
natural cavities. Brown bears tend to dig their dens in steep alpine areas. Dens are just large enough for bears to squeeze
into. Bears rarely eat, drink, urinate or defecate while they are denning. They sleep deeply, but do not truly hibernate,
and they can be awakened by loud noises or disturbances.
Cubs are born in the den, usually around January. Black bear cubs usually stay with their mothers for a year and a half,
and brown bear cubs stay with mom for 2.5 to 3.5 years. Black bears are sexually mature at age 2 and brown bears at age 4
- 8. Mating season is in the spring and both species are polygamous (multiple mates). Both brown and black bears can live
for 25 - 30 years, although most live less than 20 years.
Given the choice, most bears would prefer to be left alone to pursue the finer things
in life, like food and the opposite sex, but they share their homes with other creatures, such as humans. We intrude on virtually
every aspect of a bear‘s life. There are cabins, camps, airplanes, boats, cars, fishermen, hunters, hikers and field
workers. Bears are normally pretty tolerant of these activities and if they can find a secure way to avoid them, they will.
We can help bears make a graceful retreat, and avoid many close encounters by letting bears know we are around. Walking
in groups, talking and wearing noise making devices, such as bear bells all serve to warn a bear of your approach (I personally
dislike “bear bells” as an intrusion on my wilderness experience; and in many areas, like Yellowstone, they are
jokingly referred to as “dinner bells”).
Whenever possible, avoid hiking and camping in areas where bears are common, such as bear trails through heavy brush or
along salmon streams in the west. Keep an eye out for bears and bear sign. If you happen upon a dead animal, especially one
that is covered with sticks and duff (a bear cache) immediately retreat (but don’t run) the way you came and make a
detour around the area. If you see a cub up a tree or a small bear walking by itself, again, retreat and detour the area.
Like all young animals cubs wander away from their mothers, but female bears are furiously protective when they believe their
cubs are threatened.
Even if we do everything we can to avoid meeting a bear, sometimes bears come to us. Bears, like many creatures, are curious.
In most cases, a curious bear will investigate “human sign,” perhaps test it out (chew on a raft, bite into beer
cans), and leave, never to return. However, if the bear was rewarded during his investigation by finding something to eat,
it could be a different story. Like dogs, it is easy for a bear to find food or garbage and keep coming back for it, but it
is hard to stop them from doing it once they have been rewarded.
That is why it is important to keep human food and garbage away from bears. When in bear country, always think about the
way you store, cook and dispose of your food. Never feed bears. Food should be stored in air tight containers, away from living
and sleeping areas. Garbage should be burned, stored in air tight containers or packed out. Fish and game should be cleaned
well away from camp, and clothing that smells of fish, game or food should be stored away from sleeping areas. Menstruating
women should take extra precautions to keep themselves as clean as possible and soiled tampons or pads should be treated as
another form of organic garbage.
Once a bear has obtained food from people, it may continue to frequent areas occupied by people. If a bear doesn’t
find any more food or garbage after the next few tries, it may give up and move back into a more natural feeding pattern.
However, some bears may become bold enough to raid campsites and break into cabins in their search for human food. Often these
bears are then destroyed
Bears are basically solitary animals. The only times they are in company with other bears is
while they are in a family group (mother and cubs), during the mating season and in areas where food is extremely abundant
(such as salmon streams or open dumps). Over the centuries bears have developed a complex set of signals to communicate their
concerns to other bears. During chance encounters or food related encounters, the primary message is “stay away from me.” That message is also punctuated with a more subtle
message that says “I’m the toughest animal in the area and if you mess with me you’ll be sorry,” or
it says “I know you’re tougher than me so I won’t challenge your dominance.” By expressing these messages
through body language and noises, bears can assert themselves, or retreat without fighting. There is an obvious advantage
to avoiding a fight when dealing with an animal as tough as a bear. Therefore, it is to our advantage, as humans, to try and
understand what a bear is telling us so we can avoid being mauled by a bear, or avoid killing a bear.
Following is a discussion of the most common bear encounters and what you should probably do during the encounter. However,
we are making general statements about a complex situation. As mentioned earlier, every bear has its own individual personality
and every bear/human interaction/encounter is different. There is value in the following statements, but the better you understand
what may be going on in a bear‘s mind, the better prepared you’ll be to possibly diffuse the situation.
1) The bear sees you; you don’t know the bear is around. This is the most common encounter. Given their choice, most
bears avoid detection by people and will move out of the area. Bears do not hide in the bush, waiting to attack people.
2) You see the bear and it doesn’t seem to know you’re around. Move away slowly. Avoid intercepting the bear
if it is walking. If possible, detour around the bear. If the bear is close to you, stand where you are or back away slowly.
Do not act threateningly toward the bear, it may know you are there but has chosen to ignore you as long as you are not a
3) You see the bear and the bear sees you. Do not act threateningly, but let the bear know you are human. Wave your arms
slowly, talk in a calm voice, walk away slowly in a “lateral” direction, keeping an eye on the bear (but don’t
stare directly into the bears eyes; this is a possible threat/challenge signal). Unless you are very close to a car or building NEVER RUN FROM BEARS. In a bear‘s world, when something runs, it is an open invitation to chase it. It (running) may
trigger a predatory response. Besides, bears can run as fast as the fastest race horse for short distances, so humans don’t
have a chance of outrunning a bear.
4) You see the bear, the bear sees you and stands on its hind legs. This means that the bear is seeking more information.
Bears stand on their hind legs to get a better look, or smell, at something they are uncertain. That’s your cue to help
it figure out what you are. Help the bear by waving your arms slowly and talking to it. In spite of all the standing, snarling
stuffed bears we’ve seen in museums, standing is not a precursor to an attack. Bears do not attack on their hind legs.
5) The bear sees you, recognizes you as human, but continues to come toward you slowly. This may mean several different
things, depending on the bear and the situation. It may mean the bear doesn’t see you as a threat and just wants to
get by you; or the bear may want to test your dominance (it views you as another bear); or, if it is a black bear it may be
stalking you as food (a very rare occurrence). In all cases, your reaction should be to back off the trail slowly, stand abreast
if you are in a group, and talk loudly. If the bear continues to advance, you should stop. At this point it is important to
give the bear the message that if he continues to advance it will cost him. Continue to make loud noises and present a “large”
visual image to the bear (standing abreast, opening you coat). In bear language, bears assert themselves by showing their
size. If an adult brown bear continues to come toward you, climbing 20’ up a tree may be an option if one is nearby
(remember don’t run). Keep in mind though, brown bear cubs and all black bears can climb trees, and adult brown bears
can climb 10 - 15 feet high.
6) The bear recognizes you as a human and acts nervous or aggressive. When bears are nervous or stressed they can become
extremely dangerous. This is when it is important to try to understand what is going on in the bear‘s mind. Nervous
bears growl, woof, huff, make teeth or jaw popping sounds, rock back and forth on their front legs, urinate, and often stand
sideways to their opponent. “A universal sign of a nervous bear is excessive salivation.” Sometimes it looks as
if they have white lips, or white foam around their lips. When a bear shows any of these signs, stand where you are and talk
in a calm voice. If you are in a group, stand abreast. If you have a weapon, be prepared to use it.
7) The bear charges. If all the other signals fail, a bear will charge. Most bear charges are just another form of their language
and they do not end up making contact. The vast majority of these charges are “bluff charges.” The bear stops
before making contact with their opponent. There are many different kinds of bluff charges ranging from a loping, uncertain
gait, to a full flown (but bluff) charge. If a bear charges, stand still. If you have a weapon, take appropriate action, but
remember, if a bear is wounded, a bluff charge may turn into a real charge as the bear‘s mind shifts from an offensive
mode to a defensive mode.
8) The bear attacks. When all else fails, a bear may attack. Attacks may be preceded by all of the behaviors we have previously
described or they may be sudden with no warning.. Seemingly unprovoked attacks are often the result of a bear being surprised
or feeling threatened, a bear defending its food cache, or a female defending her cubs. When a bear attacks it usually runs
with its body low to the ground, legs are stiff, ears are flattened, hair on the nape of the neck is up and the bear moves
in a fast, determined way. Front paws are often used to knock the opponent down and jaws are used to subdue it.
If you are attacked by a bear, your reaction depends on the type of bear that is attacking. If it is a black bear, fight
vigorously, for your life may depend on it. Black bears have been known to view humans as prey, and if you struggle with the
attacking bear, it probably will go elsewhere for its meal. Brown bears are a totally different story. Brown bears attack
because they feel threatened, and they will continue to press the attack until the threat has been neutralized. If you fight
and struggle, the bear will continue to fight, and you will lose the battle. If you roll into a ball, place your hands behind
your neck, and lie still when you are attacked, a brown bear will no longer see you as a threat, and may stop the attack.
This has proven to be the best way to survive a brown bear attack. Note, however, that if you fall down and play dead “before”
a brown bear actually makes contact, the bear may come over to you and try to figure out what is going on.
Actual maulings by bears are rare. The state of Alaska has more bears than anywhere else in the world (brown, black and
polar), and there are hundreds of thousand of people living, playing and working in these bears‘ back yards. Yet, since
1900, there have only been an average of about 2 people per year mauled by bears in the state, and very few of those maulings
resulted in death.
Bears are very intelligent, wild animals. They are neither man-eaters lurking behind every bush nor
real-life stuffed animals waiting to be cuddled. People who live, work or play in bear country have a responsibility to themselves
and to the bears to attain a greater understanding of bears. Through such knowledge we can allay our own fears and better
appreciate bears. This will result in better and safer interactions for both bears and humans.
A few basic rules of thumb to remember include:
1) Think of bears as large wild dogs.
2) Always keep food and garbage away from bears.
3) Avoid areas where bears are likely to be found and make noise when you are in areas where you are probably going to
4) Steer clear of sows with cubs altogether.
5) If you encounter a bear, don’t panic. Try to understand the message the bear is conveying. Identify yourself.
6) Bears don’t like surprises.
7) Never run from bears or imitate bear sounds.
8) If a bear attacks, stand where you are - fight if it’s a black bear, play dead if it’s a brown bear.
HATS OFF TO LARRY VAN DAELE
AND THE ALASKA DEPARTMENT
OF FISH AND GAME.