You Come Across a Bear. Your Next Move Is Very Important. Do You Know What To Do?

You’re out for a hike on a glorious summer or fall day. Suddenly, you spot a bear. And the bear has spotted you, too. Would you know what to do next?

A wild bear is a beautiful sight to see. It’s incredible to see them in the wild. The animal usually wants to avoid the encounters.

Bears in the news

Bear attacks are rare but they do happen.

In October 2022, a couple’s unleashed dog attracted unwanted attention from a black bear as they were picnicking on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The dog ran towards the bear, barking loudly, and park officials believe the bear was likely aggravated by the dog acting defensively toward the dog and the couple. Over the next several minutes, the bear repeatedly attacked until the couple and their dog were able to retreat to the safety of their car.

A short time later, a hunter was attacked west of Cody, Wyoming by a grizzly bear. An investigation indicated the hunter was attacked after a sudden encounter at close range with an adult female grizzly bear with two cubs.

In both cases, the people survived the attacks. But in the European country of Slovakia, a man died after being attacked by a brown bear in June.

All illustrate the point that rare does not equal never.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feasts for beasts

Bears are not picky eaters. They eat everything: ants, berries, fish, flowers, nuts, roadkill, and human food not secured. Our food is very attractive to them; it’s easy calories. Combine that with the fact that national parks have been setting attendance records and turning away visitors and you have a recipe for potential trouble. If more people are using public lands and more people are in the mix, there’s more potential for encounters and conflict.

The key is being prepared.

First rule of bear encounter: Keep your distance

The best strategy is to never get in harm’s way by enticing or provoking a wild bear. Trying to give a bear food or approaching cute cubs are particularly terrible ways to start an encounter. That’s just looking for trouble.

The National Park Service (NPS) site points out each bear and each encounter is different but there are general guidelines useful in most situations.

First of all, keep your distance if you happen upon a bear. Don’t approach it and give it plenty of room to walk away from you. Yellowstone National Park tells visitors to stay at least 100 yards away; Shenandoah National Park in Virginia suggests 200 feet for its black bears.

You can run afoul of the law as well as the bears if you get too close. A 25-year-old woman was given four days in federal custody and fines for staying too close to a grizzly bear and her cubs at Yellowstone National Park. According to violation notices, the charges stemmed from an incident on May 10, 2021 at Roaring Mountain when a sow grizzly and her three cubs were sighted. Other visitors slowly backed away and got into their vehicles but she stayed and continued to take pictures as the sow charged her.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other tips

  • If a bear happens to surprise you, stay calm. Do not surprise the bear if it’s unaware of your presence.
  • Slowly stand up and speak to the bear in a calm, confident manner. This will distinguish your voice from the noise of a potential prey animal.
  • Walk with a group (we’re smellier and noisier in packs) and stay on designated trails.
  • If you have a small child or dog, pick it up.
  • Slowly back away from the bear and keep an eye on it. If you back away and the bear follows you or begins to act aggressively, be ready to stand your ground and fight.

Remember that every bear encounter is different: bears will exhibit different behaviors in different situations. Understanding the behavior of bears can make the difference between life and death.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What if a bear starts coming at you anyway?

If a bear starts making assertive moves in your direction, you have important decisions to make—and fast.

First thing is: Stand your ground with bears.

With either grizzlies (a subspecies of brown bears) or black bears, don’t run. Bears can outrun anybody. Don’t climb a tree either. They can also climb trees better than you.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife also has some tips:

  • Make loud noises by yelling, banging pots and pans, or using an airhorn to scare bears away.
  • Make yourself look as large as possible by waving your arms.

You can usually intimidate or bluff your way out of sticky bear situations depending on the bear species and the situation.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But what if a bear is about to attack?

You’re now in the rarest of situations—you’ve attracted a bear’s attention. It didn’t retreat. The bear has started to come at you aggressively and fast. You think you’re about to be attacked. What’s next?

One very crucial thing is to make a quick identification of the kind of bear since your strategy will be different.

If it’s a black bear, NPS have a clear message: Do NOT run. Do NOT play dead. You want to stand your ground with black bears. Look as intimidating as possible. Throw things not at it but near it. Make that black bear intimidated by you. Let it know you are a big person. Pick something up; yell at it. If it attacks, fight back.

It’s a different situation with grizzlies.  If you’re dealing with a grizzly that won’t back off and an attack is imminent, you’re advised to do the opposite. You should play dead.

Act as unthreatening as possible with a grizzly. Play dead with a grizzly if it starts to attack. Tuck and cover. Get into a fetal position. Wrap your hands around your neck. Lay on your stomach. Once you do that, 99 percent of the time the grizzly will move on.

NPS elaborates: “Remain still until the bear leaves the area. Fighting back usually increases the intensity of such attacks. However, if the attack persists, fight back vigorously.”

Fighting back a grizzly bear is the last resort—your Hail Mary pass—when all other options are out.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you tell a black bear from a grizzly?

First off, know your area and read up on the bears there.

In North America, grizzlies have a much more limited range than black bears. In the Lower 48, they are in Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—and in Alaska, too. They also cover large parts of Western Canada.

Black bears have a much larger range. They can be found in as many as 40 U.S. states and much of Canada, the National Wildlife Federation says.

So say you’re in Quebec, the Appalachians, the Ozarks, California, or even parts of Florida, that’s going to be a black bear. But if you’re in Yellowstone or Glacier National Park or in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, for instance, that could be a black bear or a grizzly. That’s when it’s crucial to know how to make a quick visual ID.

You can’t go by the color of the fur. Black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray or white, according to Bear.org.

One of the best ways to tell the difference is to look for a hump at the shoulders. Grizzlies have them. Black bears don’t.

The face shapes are also different. Black bear faces are a little rounder with a straight nose. A grizzly bear face looks more like a wild predator and has a dished shape.

Black bears have a prominent rump, a straight, dog-like muzzle, pointed ears, and dark claws.

Grizzly bears have a shoulder hump, dished face, rounded ears, and long, light-colored claws.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other tips and cautions

  • Don’t store food in tents or pop-up campers in campgrounds or in vehicles at trailheads.
  • Don’t leave food, coolers, and dirty cookware left unattended. Park rangers may confiscate them and cite you.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters and trash cans.
  • Human-fed bears usually end up as chronic problems and need to be removed. A fed bear is a dead bear.
  • The bears are just being bears. We are way more of a threat to them. Bear attacks are rare. And fatalities are even rarer.

Worth Pondering…

Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby!

—James Rollins, Ice Hunt