Awareness of your own signals is the first step
towards minimizing your chances of a bad encounter
As a former park ranger for state and federal agencies in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve witnessed numerous bear encounters in Arizona, California, Canada and Alaska. I still live in bear country, and though I’ve never been attacked or even charged by a bear, some of my friends and co-workers have (included below).
The tips below come from my own training and experience over the last 40 years of living and working in bear country. They include observations from colleagues and experts in the field on how to approach bears and wildlife and give you the absolute best chance of minimizing dangerous encounters. These tips can add a tremendous amount to your peace of mind and enjoyment in the wild, and, perhaps improve some of your interactions with people as well.
Whether you are photographing or just hiking in bear country, the first key to avoiding a bear attack starts well before you enter bear territory. Research the area you will be going to. Have there been recent bad encounters, or is the area hunted (bears are known to be more wary in these areas)? Is the terrain open vs limited sight distance from vegetation/trees? Are the bears acclimated to people? Are you able to bring a firearm vs pepper spray (neither usually permitted in the popular bear camps).
Awareness of basic bear etiquette, habits and biology is your best defense. As the UDAP bear spray safety brochure states: “Wisdom is better than strength“.
Bears are not unlike dogs in many of their mannerisms during feeding, play and aggression. Like dogs, you must get to know individual bears to read their faces, fears and reactions. A simple example is a dog showing its teeth. Some dogs show their teeth when they smile, and others only show their teeth upon defense or aggression. Though bears don’t smile, they may show teeth while feeding or playing with another bear, yawning, playing, etc. Knowing the surrounding influences on a bear – from other bears, people, land configurations that might limit their feeling of safety or escape, etc.– helps to gauge and interpret a bear’s actions.
Start with a sensible approach – your senses and theirs. Smell is their primary radar in the wild. Depending on wind direction and land configuration, they probably smelled you long before they saw or heard you. Their hearing is also better than ours, about twice as good, but still dependent on wind and other smelly priorities (salmon, other bears, etc.). So they have probably smelled or heard you long before you’ve seen them. Lastly, their sight is their weakest sense, but they still use it to verify whether what they have smelled or heard.
One of the hardest indicators of bear intentions for most people is gauging defensive vs offensive behavior. The same actions on the surface can be misinterpreted either way. For instance, a bear staring straight at you with ears up and attentive can be a sign of concern that you are a competitor for food, a threat to its young, a food source (if black bear), or just curiosity. They may be assessing whether you are about to crowd or trespass on its territory, or if another bear is nearby. Either way, they are curious and trying to get a better “sense” of your intentions.
The totality of the scene has to be taken into consideration. Are you alone in the wild, or are you at one of the popular bear camps in Katmai or Lake Clark, where bears consider people more like moving trees than threats or food sources? Your actions, before and after seeing a bear, mean everything, and will always influence the bear’s behavior. Many times you can help diffuse any feeling of threat by being as relaxed as possible and acting more like a prey than another predator (man or bear). This means you can stay aware of the bear but continue with what you are doing, as long as you are not approaching it directly or when it may not be aware of you yet. It is a fine line sometimes, and we should never be lulled into a false sense of security, but it does become easier and more natural with frequency.
At the the bear camps in Alaska, trained guides know individual bear habits and have years (decades) of experience in familiar surroundings. You will be viewing bears from either raised platforms, walkways or other familiar structures and beaches that the bears are used to.
Either way, whether you are alone or with a guide, interpreting a bear’s behavior actually starts before you enter the bear’s territory. A guide will of course know the bears in the area, but it doesn’t hurt to learn as much as possible to add depth to your experience. Have there been recent bad encounters, or is the area hunted (bears are known to be more wary in these areas)? Is the terrain open vs limited sight distance from vegetation/trees? Are the bears acclimated to people? Are you able to bring a firearm vs pepper spray (neither usually permitted in the popular bear camps).
Grizzly bear and salmon, Kenai River, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Keep this hierarchy in mind as you begin your approach:
1) Do your sensory inventory – what might they possibly smell, see and hear? Make sure you don’t smell of delicious camp food (clean up completely), perfume, deodorant, grease, meat, fish, etc. Be aware of wind direction and whether you are downwind or upwind from them. If upwind, they will smell you sooner than if you are downwind, and presumably sooner than you can see them. So if terrain is uneven and blocks some visibility, consider that they may be closer than you think if you can’t see them.
2) Nobody likes surprises. Make some noise as you walk (bring bells, call out “hey bear” periodically, talk amongst yourselves). Make your presence non-threatening by keeping arms to yourself, moving slowly, and watching outbursts of laughter, etc.
3) If you see the bear but it hasn’t seen you yet, slow down and try to determine whether it may already know you are there (e.g. you’re on a park road, at a popular photo spot, or the bear may be sniffing the air or standing up looking around, etc.). Or if it is far enough away (ideally at least a few hundred yards) or busy with other bears or activities, you can make more sound (e.g. low pitched talking) to test its reaction.
4) If the bear sees you, first just stay put and see how it reacts. Since sight is their least accurate sense, you will be seen rather indistinctly from a distance. You can use this to your advantage. The bear will usually wait for some sort of confirmation to see if you are a threat or worth ignoring. Bears are wary of other large mammals, including yourself. If you are in a new area, one of the best practices is to group up with at least 3-4 people. Bears will see you as a larger animal and be more likely to ignore you, depending on your actions. Also, as you probaby know, making noise long before you see a bear (this is forgotten more often than you might think) is always a good idea.
Again, you can defuse this tension from a distance in various ways. Your movements should be slow and deliberate at all times, even if you drop a lens cap or step on a thorn. Be satisfied with photographs from a distance until you can move forward.
I don’t try to hide completely from the bear. I let him see me from a distance and gauge its reaction. You may have read that you should make yourself seem as big as possible, since their eyesight is bad. This is a mixed bag, as you don’t want to cross the line into making it think you’re a threatening larger animal. Slow and deliberate is best.
5) If surprised by your presence, does it perk up, change its behavior or go back to what it was doing? Does it start to walk/run away? Does it face you or otherwise “hold its position”? These will cue you into whether you feel in your gut that the bear is either comfortable or a bit tense.
Most likely it will not care and continue feeding or resting. Depending on where you are, you can approach slowly, obliquely and, if possible, not look directly at the bear. You might be too far for it to see your eyes or eye direction, but it may sense body posture and whether you’re coming directly at him. Assume that if you can see its eyes, it can see yours, or a glint off of them.
Like most animals, head-on, direct movement and eye contact is their least favorite. I often look away when I know an animal is looking at me, as almost every animal interprets looking away as though you don’t care about them, hence not a threat. Sometimes I will even walk away a few steps to see how they react, and most of the time, they calm down and continue feeding or doing what they were doing.
As you get closer, monitor if it changes its habits in any way, begins to watch you more, stops, sits down, etc.. It may move slightly closer or stand up to get a better whiff or view. Usually, the minute they sense you are not a threat, they will go back to what they were doing; if they move farther away, or climb a tree (yes grizzlies can climb trees), that is a notable change in behavior that might signal you are as close as you should be.
Other more stressful reactions include:
1) standing sideways (supposedly to show size) — usually not immediately dangerous, but warning you
2) growling or popping jaw — may be defensive or aggressive/protective behavior
3) chomping their jaws but not feeding — depends a bit on eye contact and whether they are walking towards you
4) huffing or puffing — warning, protective or competitive behavior, back off
5) if farther away, continuing to walk/run directly towards you — oddly, not definitive. Anything from curious to a protective threat. Unless you have surprised the bear very close by, the bear will usually stop and reassess.
All of these generally signal stress, but not necessarily aggressive intentions. Bears can give mixed signals, depending on on their moods and motivations.
(Here are a few tongue-in-cheek “suggestions” from a facebook bear aware page: “Do not run up and push the bear…Do not push a slower friend down…even if you feel the friendship has run its course”…)
Grizzly bear prayer-McNeilRiver-RonLevy
All joking aside, one of the most prolific authors and well-respected experts on bear behavior, Stephen Stringham, PhD, offers this advice (from his numerous webpages through the Bear Viewing Association at http://bear-viewing-in-alaska.info/Whisper2.html):
…My third book, the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, explains how to avoid bears while hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, or wildlife viewing. It also advises you on how to cope with encounters. For aggressive encounters, it explains how to escape, appease, intimidate, deter or kill a bruin. (More advanced techniques are presented in my forthcoming book Bear Aggression).
For encounters with black or brown bears that begin peacefully, the Manual offers ten “golden rules” for viewing the animals safely, with minimal impact:
1) Be prepared
2) Avoid bears when and where you are not prepared to cope with them
3) View from a bear-proof location unless you can cope with encounters
4) Avoid surprise encounters and tunnel vision
5) Remain with at least five other people
6) Be wary, sensitive, cooperative and adaptable
7) View only trusting and respectful – i.e., acclimated — bears
8) Don’t crowd bears or trespass on their turf
9) Don’t smell or act like food; don’t compete with bears for food; don’t feed bears or touch them.
10) Don’t disturb bears or fellow viewers
…Implementing Golden Rules 6 & 8 requires further elaboration, especially regarding Ursid responses to intruders,methods of communicating with bears, and using diplomatic techniques to negotiate with them during close encounters. Hence this book. Although it is tailored to people who want to watch bears at photographic range, it could be of great assistance to anyone who encounters black or brown bears that are not strongly defensive,
competitive or predatory towards people. Anyone, that is, who has spent the time and effort to master these techniques or who accompanies someone who has.
…Chapter 2: Negotiating close encounters is easiest if you can assess a bear’s mood and intentions through reading its body language. The first step in learning ursid communication is comparing it to dog body language — something you may already know. Visible and audible signals by which dogs express fear, anger and playfulness are compared to signals by which bears express those same emotions, as well as frustration and curiosity.
This chapter also describes defensive threats (Please leave me alone) where a bear wants to end the encounter peacefully. It contrasts those to offensive threats (Do … or else!) where the bear is willing to escalate the encounter as necessary to achieve some goal, such as taking your food. Lastly, this chapter helps you distinguish such social (agonistic) aggression from predatory aggression.
…Chapter 6 discusses crowding and trespass in bear terms. Chapter 7 explains how to approach a bear without crowding it, trespassing on its turf, or otherwise disturbing it. The best method depends in part on whether you are in an area where bears expect to encounter people and are tolerant of that, or whether an encounter would highly stress bruins.
The distance you maintain from a bear will, of course, depend on what both you and the bear do. Chapters 8 discusses slow approaches by bold and curious bears. Chapter 9 addresses scenarios where a bear approaches you rapidly but not aggressively — for instance cases where it might be running towards a salmon in the creek near you, or where it might be fleeing another bear.
If more people read and followed Dr. Stringham’s experienced advice, there would be fewer negative bear encounters of all kinds (not just the relatively rare maulings), and this world would be a much better place for all misunderstood, politicized predators and ecosystems.
Thirty years ago, while working backcountry for Tongass National Forest Service, Alaska, I was alone on a narrow trail walking back to a cabin. I encountered a black bear sow with 2 cubs about 50-100 feet away from me by the edge of the water. There was no way to go around them. The cubs climbed the nearest tree immediately while the sow stayed at the base. I slowly backed off, talked low and slow, and went partially around a corner, keeping an eye on them. After a few minutes, I walked forward again, obliquely to them (i.e.turning my body away from them but walking forward) and as close to the water as I could. I kept my head down but watched them out of the corner of my eye. The sow eventually climbed up the tree and there was no incident.
Similarly, in 1984, my partner and had been walking in high grass in Southeast Alaska for about an hour, toward a USFS cabin near salt water. We suddenly heard heavy movement and puffing. Two brown bears then popped up only about 25 feet away. This was almost too close for us to set our rifles and shoot if they charged before standing up. They only stood for a few seconds, then dropped down and ran off. A heart-pounding moment that taught us to be a little more vocal when visibility is limited.
My experiences have paralleled the general observations of biologists and animal behavior specialists everywhere: Given half a chance, almost all animals, with the exception of a very few aggressive snakes or rogue predators, will avoid you and maintain a comfortable distance.
That being said, the peace of mind from bringing bear spray (1 per person) and/or a firearm, if permitted, is well worth the cost. If you have bear spray: consider buying one of the inert cans from the manufacturers so you can practice. You will panic less the more you practice pulling out of your holster or vest or whatever.You can also practice with outdated pepper spray cans. This will force you to buy and keep fresh cans around.
Perspectives on Bear Attacks
Grizzly bear and photographer, McNeil River, Alaska
A bear attack is an extremely rare occurrence (a few/year), especially when you compare it to the thousands of bear sightings and encounters each year worldwide. Prioritize your values with the realistic, relevant statistics to decide how worried or paranoid you want to be if you only go into the field sporadically.
To those who may be too worried about a bear attack to ever hike in bear country, it may be helpful to compare the threat to other more common threats. Threats that kill way more of us than a bear attack, on any given day, include hypothermia, falling down stairs or trails, cancer, heart disease, drowning, vehicle accidents (on or off-road), drunk-related incidents, inner-city violence, drug-related crimes, etc. Admittedly when you’re in bear country, inner-city violence isn’t relevant, but the chances are still extremely slim not only that you will ever be attacked, or that you will ever have to aggressively avoid a bear attack.
As mentioned above, there are rogue, pissed off animals, just like humans, but they are encountered about as rarely as you might personally encounter rogue pissed off individuals intent on killing you. Incidents happen after you have violated their space, not taken proper precautions, or been foolish with your habits (not being clean in camp, not hanging/stashing food or smelly items away from camp, etc.).
I have known and camped with a few friends and famous photographers who were later attacked by bears. One was Michio Hoshino, a well-known, excellent photographer, who was also known to cook in his tent. That was a fatal habit in Kamchatka. Another was a non-photographer who surprised a sow and cubs, and though he had a firearm with him, he still has trouble walking today.
The most famous incident 10 years ago involved the late Tim Treadwell, whose misguided communion with the bears in Katmai NP clouded his judgment and cost him his life. Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man told the story of Treadwell with great perspective and sensitivity.
Another person I had the pleasure of working with in law enforcement during the 1980s was the Alaska trooper Al “Bearbait” Thompson. Al and his wife had an encounter with a grizzly in 1972 not far from where I live that tore part of his scalp off and left a permanent scar. It was never known why the bear attacked in the middle of night, but Al had no time to use his .44 magnum pistol or 30.06 rifle. He hand fought the bear to save his wife and distract it, until he was thrown clear and played dead. Fortunately the bear then left and they both survived with minimal losses. Al is a legend in Alaskan circles and supposedly still lives in Michigan. His story, though real, is still one of the relatively few attacks, even within Alaska, compared to the thousands of sightings and encounters in the state yearly.
What to Do if a Bear Attack is Inevitable
Grizzly bear, Denali National Park, Alaska
While it’s easy to avoid a bear if you are out in the open and don’t see any bears, it’s a whole different story if you’ve startled one around a corner or with cubs. Both our reactions, and the bear’s, are a combination of genetics and signals quickly interpreted in the moment. This means that with the knowledge in posts like this, and a little practice in keeping composure, there is room for you to influence how the bear may respond in a given situation. Here is a synopsis of what you can do if it becomes impossible to avoid an attack:
1) If it’s a grizzly, don’t run (easier said than done), back off slowly, talk softly, avoid eye contact. They are usually defending territory or cubs. Once you’re not a threat, they usually leave. If the surprise is just too close and inevitable, drop to the ground, protect head and neck, play dead.
2) If it’s a black bear, they are after food and are looking for easy prey (predatory). They may have wandered into your area because of delicious smells, and if you startle it, it may react out of defense, not offense. That means there is a chance if you give it space, avoid eye contact, talk softly, etc., it might leave.
If you have time and about 20 feet, use bear spray. If you have a firearm, fire a warning shot. If the bear is already on top of you, fight like crazy, shoot for the head or heart. and it may work.
A 2015 incident caught my eye not only because of the survivor’s instincts but also his appreciation of the bear even after it attacked him. The bow-hunter had startled the sleeping bear unexpectedly, but survived by remembering that large animals have “bad gag reflexes”. When he shoved his arm down the bear’s throat while it was attacking him, the bear gagged and let him go. Read about it here.
Though a bear attack is gory and graphic, and preys (pun intended) on our primordial survival fears, once you take some simple precautions, you will be way ahead of the odds. Bears have hurt or killed people much less than people have hurt or killed people, and yet we understand that a few violent people shouldn’t condemn the rest of humanity. There is plenty of room for the next human (or bear) to inspire or teach us something positive about the world.
That same kind of awareness, sprinkled with a little knowledge about animal behavior, some realistic perspectives and common-sense preparation, can reward you with fantastic experiences and may save your life some day.
All text & photos © Ron Levy
Credits and references taken from some excellent books and resources: When a Bear Whispers, Do you Listen? by Stephen Stringham PhD (Also the author of several excellent bear safety books, including Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, Ghost Grizzlies, The Language of Bears); Bear Attacks: Who Survived and Why, by Mike Lapinski; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game’s “Living with Bears” webpage; Wilderness Nightmare, by Joyce Thompson; Alaska Bear Tales, by Larry Kaniut; UDAP Industries (makers of bear pepper spray) booklet “Bear Safety Tips”
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys providing pro bono support for NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects worldwide.