Bear in Mind: What to Do to Avoid a Bear Attack

After fatal bear attack in Yellowstone, experts say education is key to safety.

July 7, 2011— -- After a grizzly bear attacked and killed a hiker Wednesday, Yellowstone National Park has closed all of its backcountry campsites and trails as rangers investigate.

Park officials believe Brian Matayoshi, 57, of California, disturbed a grizzly sow and her cubs while hiking with his wife. When the couple spotted the bear, they turned and walked away. But when they looked back at the bear, they saw it was running towards them. Next, they made what proved to be a fatal mistake, they ran.

Every year, between 10 and 20 human-bear confrontations result in injuries, and typically as many as four of those attacks can be fatal, according to Chuck Bartlebaugh, the director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign, a national non-profit organization aimed at reducing human conflicts with wildlife.

"There's a definite increase in bear confrontations with people," said Bartlebaugh, "and it's not because of an increase in the number of bears. ... It has to do with people being inappropriate and having a false sense of security around bears."

It is not known how close the Matayoshis actually got to the bear; but when they spotted the animal, they were about 100 yards away, officials said. Most of the time a bear will move away from a human before the human ever knows he was anywhere near a bear, experts say.

"Bears, in general, are amazingly tolerant of humans," said Doug Zimmer, a bear educator and public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But sometimes, even when people do everything right, things can go wrong -- unwittingly surprising a bear, getting too close to a cub, threatening a bear's food source or otherwise invading a bear's personal space.

The more you know about bears, the better chance you will have of avoiding trouble all together and saving yourself in the event of a bear attack.

Arm Yourself With Bear Spray

Bear sprays are much stronger than pocket pepper sprays designed to repel human attackers. Make sure the bear spray you purchase is registered by the EPA. These high-powered sprays shoot 25-30 feet, dispersing a cloud that fogs the bear's vision, impairs its sense of smell and makes it very hard for the bear to breathe. Don't just carry one can, Zimmer said, and make sure it's easy to reach. It won't do you any good at the bottom of your pack.

Know Your Bears

Grizzly bears are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington state, as well as Alaska, Western Canada and the Yukon. Black bears are found in about 40 percent of the U.S.

Visit the Be Bear Aware and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee sites to learn more about the different types of bears. Tactics for avoiding disaster differ depending on the bear.

Identify Yourself as Human

You don't want to surprise a bear. If you are hiking in bear country, periodically speak in your normal voice and announce yourself to any bears that may be in ear shot, though not visible to you. Some people wear bear bells to make it clear they are humans. Don't yell, that will be perceived as a threat.

If a Grizzly Is Approaching

To deal with an approaching bear, calmly say, "Hey bear, I'm moving away now," Zimmer said, "and back away from it."

If a grizzly keeps approaching, you would want to have your bear spray ready to go. You also want to know which way the wind is blowing so that you do not spray it into your face. Once the bear is about 25 feet away, fire for a second or two. That should do the trick. If it doesn't, you should be able to get two more sprays of that length out of a single can.

What to Do if You Don't Have Bear Spray

If the bear approaches and you are not armed with bear spray, don't run. The bear will win that race. Talk to the bear in your normal voice.

If the bear keeps coming at you and it doesn't look like you will be able to walk away,"Go flat on the ground, hopefully you've got a pack on your back, which is a big buffer," Zimmer said. "Clasp your hands behind your neck, like you are surrendering to the military, and spread your elbows to the sides, so it's harder for the bear to turn you over."

As much as possible, lie dead in that position. The bear may swat at you and nip at you, but, "They're not really going to be very interested in doing much damage to you at this point," Zimmer said.

Some experts recommend the fetal position.

If a Black Bear Has You in Its Sights

Black bears are more timid than grizzlies and less likely to see humans as threats to pursue. But if a black bear is looking at you, coming at you with his head low, "that bear intends to recycle you as bear protein," said Zimmer. "You must fight him or he will.

"Fight with anything you've got, sticks, boots, cameras, anything," Zimmer said.

Most black bears will decide you are too much trouble and move on.

Leave Fido at Home

"Don't go into grizzly country with a dog,'' said Zimmer.

Dogs bark, they startle bears and even run towards them and taunt them before running back to their owners -- and bringing back the bears.

Don't Cook or Eat Where You Sleep

Bears follow their nose, Zimmer said.

"If you are camping," he said, "make sure you store food and other potential attractants, such as toothpaste, deodorant, candy bars bear proof containers. And store them well away from where you are going to be sleeping or spending your down time."

Also, he added, "You want to avoid cooking where you are going to sleep. Food odors get on tents, sleeping bags. You now smell like that bacon you ate."

Do Not Poke Your Nose Where It Doesn't Need to Be

Do not investigate animal carcasses or other strange smells in the woods.

"Avoid getting inside their personal space,'' said Zimmer. "Bears defend their personal space, they defend their offspring and they defend their food sources."

Watch for telltale signs of bears. A bear's diet is 80 percent vegetation and the remainder is typically bugs. If you see rolled over logs, rolled over rocks or dug up meadows, those are indications that a bear is in the area looking for food.

"If a bear is in the area, it is probably not a very good area for you to be in," said Zimmer.

Bears are fascinating and fun to watch, Zimmer added, but "that's best done through binoculars or a spotting scope."

"You can avoid most conflicts with bears," he said. "Because all they really want to do is be a bear."

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