Saturday, June 19, 2010

Respect the Bear

Bears capture our imagination. They look cute and fuzzy and harmless, meandering slowly through the woods. What people almost always forget is that they aren't harmless at all. What is it about people that makes them loose all common sense when they enter the forest?

I was in Waterton Lakes National Park on Friday (just across the border into Canada from Glacier National Park) when I spotted a beautiful grizzly poking through the forest. She stopped now and again to dig in the fallen trees, I assume looking for grubs, roots or seeds to munch on. She seemed pretty mellow so I decided to approach for a few photos. I wasn't the only one. A young girl (teenager) was VERY excited and ran ahead into the woods, making a racket and darting back and forth looking for a good vantage point to get a photograph. Her mother occasionally yelled at her to move back. Mom was apparently keeping an eye out for the mother bear to appear and would warn her daughter to run if there was any sign of the 'cubs' mother. I hated to break it to them but lucky for us, this bear was NOT a cub. Interior grizzly bears are much smaller than the coastal bears but I'd hazard to guess this was still around a 350 - 400 pound bear! Not even close to being a cub.

To the girls credit when I pointed out DON'T RUN! She stopped... she slowed down and moved with purpose and the bear immediately calmed and went back to foraging. A little while later we were joined by a grandfather with two young girls - approximately 6 & 9 years old. They did not stop running... I watched the bear, looking for signs of aggression. At one point she began to pop her jaw and stare straight at the teenage girl... that was about the time the girls mother had had enough and said "Get back in the car RIGHT NOW!"

A group of hikers appeared approximately 500 feet away. They had no idea the bear was there. 10 minutes earlier the bear had stood up, stared in the direction of the hikers, thoroughly sniffed the air and dismissed them as non-threatening. She knew they were there all along.

It's so easy for these animals to hide from humans. The forest is their home and most of the time - we never know the half of what is watching us in the woods. Since we are the interlopers it's OUR responsibility to know the rules for our own safety AND the bears.

A few tips:
  • Bears don't like to be surprised... Do you? Making noise while you are hiking will let the bear know you are there and give them ample time to move off to a comfortable distance. Bells, whistles, singing, talking will all do the trick.
  • Stay on marked trails. It's easier to stumble onto and surprise a bear if you are hiking cross country.
  • Hike in a group. Statistically attacks by bears are reduced exponentially by group size.
  • Bear are more active at dusk and dawn. Be aware.
If you encounter a bear:
  • Make certain the bear knows you are there. Talk in a normal voice and move steadily away from the bear.
Watch the behavior!
  • If the bear looks at you and continues about his business... terrific! Enjoy the encounter.
  • If the bear looks worried... jaw popping, grumbling, shaking head side to side... you are too close, back away slowly!
  • A bear standing up is not a sign of aggression. They stand to see you better - once they get a good look, chances are they will walk away.
Remember: You are a guest in the bears home. Be respectful!


G Dan Mitchell said...

Nice post, Rebecca... with some important information for those who are unfamiliar with bears.

(That seems to include quite a few people. I recently read a post by a fellow who had decide not to visit Yosemite because he was... scared of the bears!)

I've had my share of lucky encounters with these wonderful creatures - mostly in the Sierra back-country but also once or twice in Alaska. It is a wonderful privilege to get to see them.

One of the scariest bits of "stupid human behavior" I have seen around a bear - though perhaps not the stupidest - was in the Tuolumne Meadows campground some years ago. As happens from time to time, a bear wandered through the campground. A group of people began to follow. Before long the bear became a bit skittish and climbed a treed. The campers then completely surrounded the tree the bear had climbed. Not smart!


Rebecca Jackrel said...

Thanks Dan. It's been a hard year for bears which is so sad... they are wonderful creatures when viewed responsibly and with even a little bit of knowledge.