9 Bear Safety Tips From a Bear Biologist

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3. Be vigilant everywhere.

A paper that Stephen Herrero and I published showed that the only predictor of bear attacks in Alaska was bear density—but not as you might imagine. The fewer the bears, the more likely the problem. We have a saying: “Bears are where they find you.”

4. Put your trust in bear spray.

The efficacy of spray vs. guns was the subject of my most recent paper [published in 2012 in the The Journal of Wildlife Management]. Out of 133 encounters involving bear spray, only three people suffered injuries, which were all minor. But I found 269 incidences of gun defenses—with 17 dead people and hundreds of dead bears.

If you shoot a grizzly in the Lower 48, you’re moron of the year. Most states require you to hike out the carcass, and in some cases you’ll have to pay fines [for shooting an endangered species]. Those problems go away with bear spray. Plus, you can use bear spray with impunity—and with positive benefits for bear and human alike. A bear spritzed with pepper spray gets a good spanking—“Hey! These creatures are like skunks. Screw it, I’m outta here!”—and you’re positively conditioning it to associate that lesson with future hikers.

Despite what some people say, I’m not just pimping the [bear spray] industry. Those guys hate me. At one point, I showed that bear spray could actually attract bears. I just demonstrated that if you’re stupid enough to spray it around a tent, you just said, “Eat at Joe’s.” Not a lot of people were doing that, but there were enough that it had to stop. The media distorted it, and I was in a number of TV and radio spots where people said, “Bear spray doesn’t work.” But the correct human analogy for the ways bear react to bear spray is this: I like a milkshake, but I don’t want it sprayed up my nose.

“What do I do if I don’t have bear spray with me?” a woman once asked me. I said, “Don’t not have that stuff!” It’s irresponsible not to protect yourself, but also not to give [the bears] an alternative option. She kept going, saying, “But please answer my question.” I said, “Let me phrase it this way: You are telling me that you’re riding in a truck, and refuse to wear a seatbelt. Then, you’re asking me: What’s the best way to be ejected through the windshield?” That’s when I started realizing that the primary piece of information is this: Don’t go out there without a deterrent. That, and commit to making noise appropriately.

That doesn’t mean scream at the top of your lungs all the time. We’re out there to be part of the flow of nature. Good lord—we don’t want to have this blast zone. That’s stupid. In a lot of Alaska where I hike, I’m sharing the same area with 100 bears. But I never have trouble with them because I make noise appropriately. If you come to a blind spot, and there’s good probability there’s a bear nearby, clap, talk loudly, that sort of thing. If, after all you’ve done, something happens, and there’s a bear: 1) stand your ground; 2) ready deterrent; and 3) yell “hey, bear!”

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