Watching bears in their natural environment from a safe, respectable distance can be incredibly thrilling. Positive experiences are far more common than negative ones. Although extremely rare, aggressive meetings between people and bears ("encounters") sometimes occur. To avoid them:
Hike or run in a group and during daylight hours.
If a bear hears you coming, it will usually avoid you. Bears feel threatened if surprised. Talk or sing songs as you walk – especially in dense brush where visibility is limited, near running water or when the wind is in your face. Your voice will help bears to identify you as human.
Be aware. Learn about and watch for bear sign. Overturned rocks or broken-up, rotten logs can be a sign that a bear has been foraging for grubs or insects. Claw marks on trees, tracks in the dirt or snow, berries on the ground, plant root diggings or fur on the bark of trees are all signs that a bear has been in the area.
Stay away from abundant food sources and dead animals – bears may be foraging in the area or protecting a carcass.
Keep dogs on a leash and under control. Dogs may be helpful in detecting bears, but they may also fight with them or lead them back to you.
Avoid wearing scented cosmetics and hair products.
Encounters with aggressive bears are extremely rare. Attacks are even rarer. The tips in this article will help prevent bear-human conflicts, but it is always good to be prepared for an encounter. There is no fool-proof way of dealing with a bear encounter (each bear and encounter is different) but the following responses have worked in the past:
If you see a bear in the distance respect the bear's need for space – try to make a wide detour or leave the area.
If you suddenly encounter a bear at close range remember that bears may act defensively if startled, or if protecting cubs or a food cache.
Remain calm. Do not run. Identify yourself as human by talking in low tones, with arms outstretched. Move upwind so that the bear can catch your scent.
Don't crowd the bear - leave it a clear escape route and it will probably exit.
The bear may "pop" its jaws or swat the ground while blowing and snorting. Watch the bear but avoid direct eye contact (a sign of aggression).
A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact.
If a bear actually attacks in a "sudden encounter" situation, you should fight back aggressively with any available object. Note that different responses apply to black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears. If a black bear actually attacks, the standard rule is to fight back aggressively as this will encourage the bear to "give up" and leave. It is deadly to do this with a grizzly; the best chance is to "play dead".
If a bear follows you
Bears very rarely exhibit predatory behavior (following you before attacking). If a bear follows you, try to be intimidating - make lots of noise, appear as large as possible, throw rocks and sticks. Let the bear know that you will fight back if attacked and that you are not easy prey. If the bear continues to follow, place your pack or other item down as a distraction. During an offensive, predatory attack such as this you should fight back.
Remember, bears are far more likely to enhance your wilderness experience than spoil it. Knowing how to interpret their behavior and act responsibly is part of the thrill of sharing forests and mountains with these amazing creatures.
True or false?
A bear that stands on its hind legs is preparing to charge.
FALSE. A bear that is standing on its hind legs is usually trying to identify you by scent or sight. Bears rarely attack, but when they do it is on all fours with their heads down.
A bear's sense of smell is better than a dog's.
TRUE. In fact, it is one of the most sensitive noses in the animal world.
Bears are naturally aggressive towards humans.
FALSE. Bears are shy, retiring creatures who only act aggressively as a last resort – usually when they feel threatened.
The best way to get away from an aggressive bear is by running.
FALSE. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse for short distances, and running may trigger their chase response.
Bears cannot run downhill.
FALSE. Bears can run faster than any human – in any direction.
When hiking or running in bear country, it is good to make noise to warn any bears of your presence.
TRUE. Making noise will alert the bear and give it time to move out of your way without feeling threatened.
There are eight bear species in the world.
Although scientifically classified as carnivores, bears are opportunistic omnivores: about 95% of their diet is vegetation, but they eat a wide variety of foods depending upon what is available.
Black bears (Ursus americanus) vary in color from black through cinnamon to blonde!
All over the world, bears compete with humans for space, which leads to conflict.
Average adult male black bears weigh 250 pounds, while females average 140 pounds. Grizzlies can be double this.
Bears will generally avoid humans, but might be attracted to a backyard or campsite by the odor of food from a barbecue, garbage can, bird feeder, pet food or outdoor refrigerator.
Bears are strong – they have been known to bend open car doors in their search for food!
When humans carelessly leave food out, near a home or in a camp, bears see it as an easy meal and may become "food-conditioned". Food-conditioned bears associate humans, camps and homes with food rewards - they become nuisance animals when they repeatedly return for these rewards. Nuisance bears must be captured and relocated to another area or euthanized to prevent them from becoming an increased danger to people. Remember: a fed bear is a dead bear.
Run The Planet thanks the Appalachian Bear Center (www.appbears.org) for the permission to reprint part of the "Bear Safe" safety brochure. The text has been slightly adapted to fit Run The Planet's standards. Bear Safe is a program of educational activities designed to reduce conflicts between bears and humans by fostering an understanding of bears and an acceptance of them as a desired part of our wilderness. The brochure is directed and implemented by the Appalachian Bear Center with funding and support from the World Society for the Protection of Animals through "Libearty – the world campaign for bears". For more information about Bear Safe activities or to make a donation, please contact the Appalachian Bear Center or the World Society for the Protection of Animals (www.wspa-international.org). Content of the safety brochure approved by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Bear Center.