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.

MYTH: A bear standing on its hind legs is preparing to charge.
TRUTH: A bear that is standing on its hind legs is usually trying to get a better view. This is not a threat or a signal that the bear is about to charge. Bears rarely attack, but when they do it is on all fours, with their heads down.

MYTH: If a bear huffs and growls, or slaps the ground, it is about to attack.
TRUTH: “Threat displays” such as snorting, salivating, snapping jaws, body posturing, etc. are meant to communicate dominance and scare you away. The bear is trying to avoid a fight.

MYTH: Once a bear charges, it is attacking.
TRUTH: Often a bear will “bluff charge” to scare you away, by veering off or stopping short at the last second. While bluff charge can be difficult to distinguish from a real charge, bluff charges usually occur with a hopping or bouncing motion, with the bear’s head up, legs stiff, and ears forward.

MYTH: The best way to get away from an aggressive bear is by running.
TRUTH: Running away will likely trigger a chase response, and you can’t outrun a bear. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse for short distances, and can run faster than the fastest human in any direction, including uphill.

MYTH: If you can, you should climb to escape from a grizzly bear.
TRUTH: A common misconception is that grizzly bears, unlike black bears, cannot climb trees. While its long claws make climbing more difficult for a grizzly than for a black bear, a grizzly can get to you in a tree – it will more likely, however, be able to reach you before you reach the tree.

MYTH: The best defense against a bear is a gun.
TRUTH: Research has shown that a mortally wounded bear usually lives long enough to injure seriously its attacker. People using guns against bears are more often attacked and more severely injured than those using bear spray to defend themselves and deter the bear. While so-called “bear spray” cannot prevent an encounter with a bear, it is by far the best known method of preventing attack and injury, if an encounter occurs. Bear spray is also nontoxic and will not permanently harm either the bear or the person exposed to it.

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.

SCAT (DROPPINGS):  Dropping are often found along the trail and in open meadows. Bear scat is often quite dark in color, with partially digested vegetation, insects, and hair visible. While grizzly scat is about 2 inches or so in diameter, it is not always possible to distinguish black bear from grizzly scat by size.

CLAW AND TEETH MARKS:  Bears often use “mark” trees, where they claw and rub against the tree. Such trees usually have many claw marks and hair in the exposed sap. Vertical scratch marks are usually at eye level, but may, in some cases, be as high as 12 feet off the ground.

STRIPPED BARK:  Bears strip down and tear off tree bark from young conifers to eat the inner layer, usually in the spring. (However, stripped bark can also be a sign of antlered or horned wildlife rubbing against trees.)

CACHES:  Bears cover the carcasses of large animals and carefully guard them. These appear as humps on the ground covered by branches, grasses, and dirt. Be alert for a strong dead-animal odor and scavenging birds in the area. Such sites should not be approached and you should expect a bear to be nearby.

FISH PARTS:  In areas near some streams, remnants of fish heads, tails, and eggs can be seen where bears have been feeding on spawning fish; the odor of dead and rotting fish may be noticeable.

DIGGINGS:  Bears consume great quantities of food (roots and tubers, worms, insects, small rodents) found below the surface of the ground. Anthills and dry stream banks may be scooped out. Sometimes tell-tale claw marks may be visible in the dirt.

LOGS AND STUMPS TORN APART:  Logs may be rolled over or ripped apart by bears in search of a meal of ants and other insects, or mice, squirrels, and other rodents.

ROCKS OVERTURNED:  Bears flip rocks looking for insects. Often many rocks in an area are flipped over on top of growing vegetation, next to a bare area or diggings in the ground.

DAY BEDS:  A depression in the ground or a place where vegetation has been flattened, often with several scats nearby and near a food source. Bears will commonly return to day beds when not feeding or migrating.

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.

Food-conditioned bears—those that have previously eaten human food or garbage—are the biggest single cause of bear problems, as they often approach people or their belongings. Although you may use bear spray to temporarily drive a food-conditioned or persistently curious bear away, you can help prevent these problems by making sure bears can’t get into your food or garbage.

Predatory attacks are extremely rare. However, if you think a bear is stalking you, or if it tries to enter your tent or camp, use your bear spray, make noise, and fight back. Walk away from the area as soon as you can after the sprayed bear retreats. If the bear returns to threaten you, continue to fight back with all your resources.