Bear safety

When traveling in the Northwest wilderness you will encounter bears and, more often than not, it will be your actions that will determine the outcome of that encounter. By developing a deeper understanding of the bear’s patterns of behavior you can greatly reduce the likelihood of having a dangerous confrontation by inadvertently provoking them. This short guide will take you through the knowledge and skills you will need to travel safely in the bear’s domain.

Bears of the Northwest

Color: white, length: 8 - 10 feet, weight: Males 600 - 1,200 pounds females 400 - 700 pounds. The Polar Bear lives on sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding coastal land masses. It is the world's largest land carnivore and it has evolved to occupy a unique ecological niche, with many body characteristics adapted exclusively for moving across snow, ice, open water, and for hunting ringed and bearded seals which make up the majority of its diet. Although stereotyped as being highly aggressive they are normally cautious during confrontations with people however hungry Polar Bears are extremely dangerous and have been known to stalk, kill and eat humans. They are stealthy hunters, and the victim is often unaware of the bear's presence until the attack is underway.

Color: black, dark brown to blonde, length: 7 - 9 feet, weight: males 400 - 1,100 pounds females 200 - 600 pounds. Brown Bears typically live along the pacific coastal zones of the Northwest where they have access to seasonally abundant spawning salmon. The rainforest of the pacific coast also provides a rich array of vegetation they can use as food as well as a milder climate and this allows them to grow larger and live in higher densities than Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) who live in the interior regions. Kodiak Bears, largest of the spices, are also classified as a distinct sub-species (Ursus arctos middendorffi) from those on the mainland because they have been isolated from other bears since the last ice age. Most Brown Bear attacks on humans are not predatory in nature but defensive, over food resources, being startled or a perceived threat to their young, and after the initial attack occurs the bear will usually move on.
Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Color: black to brown, length: 5 - 6 feet, weight: Males 150 - 400 pounds females 125 - 250 pounds. Black Bears are is the smallest and most common of the Northwest bear species and are true omnivores, with their diets varying greatly depending on season and location. They typically live in mostly forested areas and, unlike the larger Brown Bears, will climb trees regularly to feed, escape enemies or to sleep. Some interesting Northwest sub-spices include: the Haida Gwaii Black Bear (Ursus americanus carlottae) located on the islands of Haida Gwaii, generally larger than its mainland counterparts with a heavier skull and teeth, the Kermode bear or Spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) of the northwestern coast of British Columbia with its distinctive white or cream colored coat due to a recessive gene and the Glacier Bear (Ursus americanus emmonsii) smallest and rarest of the Black Bear family distinguished by its silvery gray fur with a blue luster. Surprisingly Black Bear attacks on humans though rare are, more often than not, predatory in nature choosing to feed on the victim after the initial attack occurs.

Bear behavior

The majority of bear aggression and attacks on humans are directly or indirectly caused by human behavior and therefore can be avoided. Bears, just like humans, have patterns of behavior and a social code that allows them to survive and coexist with each other. Therefore it is vitally important for us to understand the rules that govern their lives as well as how they utilize the land and resources around them to give us the insights necessary to avoid disrupting and antagonizing them.
After they are born bears live with their mother for up to two years and during this time she must teach them how to survive and vigorously defend them from predatory attacks by other bears. Adult bears will kill and eat another bear’s cubs given the chance and this is why mother bears with cubs are so dangerous. They will not hesitate to launch an attack if they perceive any threat to their young. Even once the juvenile bears are on their own they can still be easy prey for larger and more powerful adults, so all bears that have survived to adulthood have done so by avoidance, stealth and cunning.
Throughout their lives bears are, generally speaking, solitary in nature allowing close contact only during mating and raising their young. Due to their need to forage for regionally and seasonally available food sources bears can roam over large areas and do not defend territories as some animals do. Their tolerance or aggression towards others is based on a comfort zone, or proximity, the distance of which is subject to change based on a number of factors.
A bear’s proximity tolerance will vary greatly with age, sex and social status Very large adult males (boars) have little to fear from others and act accordingly whereas smaller males and females (sows) will often be more reserve in their actions. Females with cubs are prone to hyper-aggressive behavior if they perceive a threat to their young and like children of any spices their cubs can be somewhat overly curious and rambunctious.
Just as it is with us in the city, a bear’s proximity tolerance will vary depending on their physical location in the forest. Seeing a stranger on the street or at the store would not cause us any alarm however finding a stranger in our home defiantly would. So it is with the bears, salmon streams, beaches, sedge meadows and trails are common areas that all share. Food cashes (buried kills) bedding areas and dens are private areas and are more vigorously defended. In the bear’s world these private areas are marked by sent (urine) and would be readily noted by other bears, unfortunately we humans with our diminutive olfactory senses often miss this vital clue.
Another variable in a bear’s proximity tolerance is its past history and its habituation to human presence. Hunted bears are far more cautious around humans than are bears that live in a National, State or Provincial Park where hunting is prohibited. Park bears accustomed to human presence can become so blasé to human visitors that they will stroll right through camp to get where they are going leaving panicked campers in their wake. Far more dangerous however are bears that have become thoughtlessly habituated to human created food sources. Once a bear associates humans with food they can become every camper’s worst nightmare and will, unfortunately, end up ether being relocated or destroyed. So please DO NOT FEED THE BEARS!
Over the millennia bears have developed a complex use of vocalizations, posturing and body language to express their dominance, proximity tolerance and intentions to other bears, these signals help them to avoid serious and often debilitating combat. These signals are easy for us to read and will give us a better understanding of the bears intentions. Often when encountering a human being bears can become naturally curious and wish to investigate. Being slowly and cautiously approached by a bear is not a sigh of an imminent attack. Non aggressive behavior may begin by raising its head up to sniff the air and standing on its hind legs to get a better look at you. Unlike many fictionalized accounts bears do not attack standing up. When bears attack they keep their bodies low to the ground moving with cat like swiftness, their gaze is laser focused. Most aggressive behavior however is defensive in nature because, for one reason or another, you have violated their proximity tolerance. Defensive behavior may start by them standing sideways to show off how big they are, this may be followed by raised hackles, huffing, growling, moaning, yawning, jaw snapping, salivating, thrashing at the brush and in extreme cases a false charge. Observing any of these aggressive signs is your cue to back away slowly and leave the area.

Reducing your risk

When first encountering a bear in the wild an initial risk assessment should be made, what species of bear are you observing, is it a large or a small bear and does it have cubs? Is the bear heading your way, dose the bear see you? If you are you in heavy brush with limited visibility you may want to move to more open ground, or start using your voice to announce your location. If the bear has seen you or has become aware of your location, what is the bear’s reaction, does it look to retreat, is it curious, or has it become agitated and hostile? If so what you do next is very important.
DO NOT RUN AWAY! This will more often than not elicit a hunt and chase response and you will not be able to out run a bear. Stand your ground and have your bear spray and or firearm at the ready. Begin by talking to the bear in a calm voice, let them know you mean them no harm. Bears are very intuitive and can often read body language and voice inflection. Move away slowly and out of their path of travel, let them continue on their way, if possible move to higher ground. Keep your eyes on the bear’s movements but do not glare or try and stare them down, this can be perceived as threatening behavior on your part.
When hiking in bear country maintain situational awareness of your surroundings, stop often to look and listen, keep an eye out for bears so you can give them plenty of room. Look for recent signs of bear activity such as fresh tracks, scat piles, diggings or tree scratches if you see any of these it’s time to be especially alert. In heavy brush where visibility is limited remember to make plenty of noise; loud talking or singing is always better than using bells. This is one reason that having a larger group size is very helpful in detouring negative bear encounters. Larger groups are nosier and more intimidating, the more people the greater the safety. Try and choose routes with good visibility and avoid thick brush where ever possible and always be alert near rivers and streams during salmon season.
When fishing gut your catch at the shoreline not at camp, throw the guts back into the water. Try not to get fish odors on your clothes and wash your hands, knife and cutting board after cleaning fish. Cook fish and all foods well away from your camping area. If a bear comes into your part of the stream leave and come back later.
When kayaking be extra careful in narrow streams and intertidal areas that have limited visibility beyond the shoreline, remember that shallow water can give you a false sense of security, bears can cover ground quickly even in several feet of water. When coming ashore loudly announce your arrival before you land to alert any bears that are hidden behind the tree line. Have your bear spray and or firearm close at hand the minute you are ashore.
When camping be sure and choose a campsite well away from salmon spawning streams, berry patches and well worn bear trails. It is also inadvisable to camp right on the beach, placing your camp back inside the tree line is best, many animals including bears use the beaches for foraging and a transportation corridor. For areas with frequent bear activity the portable electric fences have been shown to be effective however they may not be practical for hiking and kayaking trips because of their size and weight. Another low-tech alternative is using fishing line with bells to set up a trip wire perimeter around you tent site thus giving you an early warning to an intruder. Place your cooking and food storage area at least thirty yards away from your tent, downwind if possible. Use multiple layers of plastic bags when storing food and its residual garbage for odor control and moisture proofing. Hang your food at least twenty feet off the ground and five feet from the trunk of the tree (best) or use bear proof containers.

Defending yourself against an attack

Bear Spray is by far your best option to stop an attacking bear, please see our post on Best defense against bears. It is best to carry it in a holster on your hip or chest, you may have only a second to react to an attack and it will do you no good buried in you pack or kayak. Stay quick on your feet because you may need to maneuver to avoid the bear’s charge. After removing the safety cap discharge a three second burst at the bears face, you may have to discharge your spray more than once to repel a determined bear. The maximum effective range of bear spray is about twenty-five feet. Consider wind direction, if discharged upwind or in a confined space bear spray can disable the user, you may need to hold your breath and shield your eyes and face while spraying at the bear.

If you intend to carry a firearm, make sure it is of an adequate caliber to stop a bear, smaller calibers may eventually kill a bear but only after it has torn the unfortunate defender to shreds. The projectile must be large enough to stop the charge and kill the bear instantly. For a pistol use nothing smaller than a 44 magnum with a with a six inch barrel minimum, for a rifle a 30-06 or larger. Our personal choice is the Mossberg Mariner 12-gauge shotgun with three inch magnum shells and rifled slugs. It is both light and easy to carry in the field and has sufficient knock down power to stop a charging Brown Bear. Study bear anatomy to find the most vulnerable and effective areas to place your shot like the heart and stem of the brain (best), bears bodies are heavily boned have an incredible ability to take punishment. Practice often until you can shoot quickly and accurately at a moving target at ten, twenty and thirty yards. Firearms should only be used as a last resort in a truly life threatening situation.

The worst case scenario is being unarmed, yet surviving an attack is possible if you keep your cool and act decisively. First assess the species and size as this will determine the best course of action. If it is a Black Bear it is best to fight back, throw heavy rocks or use a heavy stick as a club and aim for bear’s nose. Remember Black Bears can climb trees and their attacks are usually predatory and they will likely try and eat you. If it is a Brown Bear a passive defense is best, climb a tree or go to the ground and get into a defensive huddle using your arms and or backpack to shield your head and neck. You may get roughed up but good however Brown Bears usually move away once they feel that you are no longer a threat.

While there is no guarantee that advice given here will prevent you from being harmed by a bear it can definitely help you reduce your risk. If you are heading into bear country for the first time please feel free to copy and print this short tutorial to take along with you.

If you wish to read more on this subject we would strongly suggest; Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero