The Misunderstood Bear

Even before Lewis and Clark provided the first scientific data about grizzly bears 200 years ago, legends about the “great white bear” abounded among early American explorers, pioneers, and settlers. Stories and tall tales about vicious, man-eating bears helped perpetuate the myth of the grizzly as a fierce and aggressive animal. While all wild animals can be dangerous if approached or threatened, human beings can safely coexist with these native species if we make an effort to understand the truth about their behavior and reactions.

MYTH: Bears are naturally aggressive towards humans.
TRUTH: Bears are normally shy, retiring creatures who only act aggressively as a last resort — usually when they feel threatened. Bears very rarely exhibit predatory behavior towards humans. However, a bear that has been exposed to human food or garbage may become dangerous and aggressive towards people.

Know the Signs of the Grizzly

TRACKS AND TRAILS:  A bear’s track is five-toed; the claws are sometimes evident and sometimes not. Bears often follow the same routes as people, along established trails, in late evening or early morning. Fresh bear tracks are most often seen on trails in the morning.

Bear Encounters

Avoid unwanted bear encounters by recognizing bear sign, understanding bear behavior, and staying “bear aware” at all times. Usually, bears are shy creatures that act aggressively only as a last resort, typically when they sense a threat to themselves, their young or a food source. To avoid encounters with defensive bears:

  • Make noise while hiking, especially when visibility is limited (such as in dense brush), or hearing is limited (near running water, or when the wind is in your face).
  • If you do surprise a bear, remain calm and do not run. There is no need to spray a bear peacefully going about its business. If the bear sees you and is not approaching you, watch the bear and back away slowly. Speak in a calm voice and wave your arms so the bear can identify you as human. Take your bear spray out of its holster and have it ready in your hand (“When a Bear Charges: How to Use Bear Spray”).
  • If the bear charges, stand your ground until it breaks off its charge. Most charges are bluffs, meant only to discourage you from approaching further. However, if the bear gets closer than 20-30 feet, use your bear spray.
  • Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, do not play dead unless a surprised and agitated bear knocks you down. However, if a calm bear deliberately approaches, stalks you, or breaks into a tent, fight back.