Are You Bear Aware?

Wildlife is a huge part of the mountain and wilderness regions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Alaska, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Deep snowpack, more grizzlies

Grizzly bears are powerful, top-of-the-food-chain predators, yet much of their diet consists of nuts, berries, fruit, leaves, and roots. Bears also eat other animals, from rodents to moose. (Credit: talktocanada.com)

Numerous encounters between grizzly bears and humans have been reported this spring, attributed to a growing bear population stuck in the low country as a result of the deep snowpack. High winter snowpack levels mean bears are moving to lower elevations and are likely to stay there longer than in previous winters.

Grizzly bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but their numbers have been growing in recent years, increasing the chance for encounters with humans, according to Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition, heavy snowfall this winter has taken longer to melt in cool spring weather.

“You have more bears, and then you have these high snow levels so the bears can’t be in the mountains where they want to be,” Servheen said.

In a nonfatal encounter, two hikers were mauled by a bear in the Gallatin National Forest (Montana) when they came across a young grizzly bear and a sow chasing an elk. The 36-year-old woman tried to climb a tree when the sow bit her in the leg. The man was bitten in the forearm when he tried to fight off the bear. Neither injury was life threatening. They were not carrying pepper spray.

Servheen said it served as a good reminder for people to be bear-aware and make noise and always carry pepper spray while hiking in Bear Country.

Bear Concerns near Yellowstone

The long guard hairs on their backs and shoulders often have white tips and give the bears a grizzled appearance, hence the name grizzly. (Credit: firstpeople.us)

The Gallatin National Forest says grizzly bear experts have recommended banning tent camping in three campgrounds near Yellowstone National Park, including one where a Michigan man was mauled to death last July. The requirement for hard-sided recreational vehicles only is in effect for the Soda Butte, Colter, and Chief Joseph campgrounds just east of Cooke City because bears frequent those areas, reports the Associated Press.

Forest spokeswoman Marna Daley says the requirement is in place this summer while managers consider a long-range strategy. Hard-sided vehicles include those made of metal or strong composite plastic. Truck-box campers that have a 4-foot high hard side, in addition to a raised upper section, are permissible.

Bear Safety

It’s important to be informed about bears and what to do when you come into contact with them.

Bears are not tame, gentle, or cuddly; they are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

Bears are naturally wary of people and are reluctant to come close to humans. However, if you do encounter a bear there are some important things to remember:

  • If the bear is spotted in the distance and has NOT seen you, back away (without running) the way you came while keeping the bear in view; remain calm and avoid direct eye contact
  • If the bear is at close range, back away slowly
  • If you need to move forward, give the bear as much space as possibly
  • If the bear is standing up, it is usually trying to identify you; talk softly so it knows what you are; if its snapping its jaws, lowering its head, flattening its ears, growling, or making ‘woofing’ signs, it is displaying aggression
  • Never come between a bear and its cubs or animal carcass, as the bear will protect them; slowly back away and leave the area the way you came
  • Carry pepper/bear spray when venturing into the wild
  • Report all sightings to Park Staff

A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear

Black bears typically have black fur over the main part of their body with a tan colored muzzle. (Credit: bearsforever.com)

Don’t be a contributor to food-conditioning.

Wildlife experts say having a bear wreck your campsite is not only bad for you, but potentially deadly for the bear.

Bears that scavenge for food begin to associate food with humans, and become food-conditioned. Food-conditioned bears lose their natural fear of humans and become a threat to park visitors as they roam through the park in search of an easy meal.

There is little or no chance of correcting a food-conditioned bear; Park Rangers are forced to destroy them when they become aggressive towards humans.

Avoiding Dangerous Encounters with Bears

Food-conditioning of bears can be prevented by heeding the following simple precautions:

  • Never feed or approach bears or other wildlife
  • Reduce or eliminate odors that attract bears
  • Store food in air-tight containers in RV or car trunk
  • Keep your campsite clean
  • Never leave cooking utensils, coolers, grease, or dish water lying around the campsite
  • Obey all closures and warnings

The rule about bears is their unpredictability.

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Bears and Bear Safety.

Worth Pondering…
Alive, the grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding—a sign that man can learn to conserve what is left of the earth. Extinct, it will be another fading testimony to things man should have learned more about but was too preoccupied with himself to notice. In its beleaguered condition, it is above all a symbol of what man is doing to the entire planet. If we can learn from these experiences, and learn rationally, both grizzly and man may have a chance to survive.
—Frank Craighead, Track of the Grizzly, 1979

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