The Importance of Personal Space
The size of personal space required by a bear varies from animal to animal, depending on how accustomed it is to humans and on its sex and species. When this personal space is invaded, the bear feels scared or threatened and two things can occur – a fight or a flight.
Black bears evolved in a treed environment. When they felt threatened, they usually climbed a tree for safety or fled into the forested cover. Therefore, a black bear’s instinctive reaction when feeling scared or threatened is to climb a tree or flee.
Grizzly bears evolved in a treeless environment. When they felt threatened, there was no forest cover for safety so they had to stand their ground and defend themselves, their food or offspring. It is a grizzly bear’s instinctive reaction to stand its ground, a grizzly is more likely than a black bear to stand its ground when feeling threatened. However, many do not. Not every encounter with a grizzly bear acting defensively will lead to an attack, but generally, a grizzly bear will behave more aggressively than a black bear.
Understanding Bear Behaviour
Although bears are unique as individuals, like humans, they display patterns of I iiihaviour that people who visit wild country should understand. Bears are solitary except during the brief mating period (May to July) and when females are accompanied by their young. liear society is characterized by a tendency of individuals and family groups to be spatially ;(1.1regated, each in their own territory or home ionge. When they do come together, the outcome is determined by their social status. Usually adult males are most dominant, followed by females with young, then females without young. Subadults are the lowest level. Confrontations are resolved by body language (e.g., an aggressive stance), facial expression, or growling leading to a charge or flight. On occasion, if the animals are close in social status, a serious fight may ensue.
Bears are curious, which has survival advantage because it may lead to the dis¬covery of the best foods. If a bear has scented a person, it usually leaves quickly, but first it may stand to get a better view, sniff the air or circle downwind. A bolder bear may display the same kind of threat that it would towards another bear, such as huffing, panting or growling or “jaw-popping”. Staring directly with head lowered and ears laid back, it may walk stiffed-legged; slap vegetation or the ground with its front feet; or make one or more bluff charges. The purpose of such behaviour is to establish the dominance relationship without fighting, thus avoiding injury.
Being “bear aware” is a necessary attitude for those who travel in wilderness. If you are new to bear country, it is a good idea to attend a bear awareness and safety course. Books, videos and other materials about bears are available. Learn about bears, learn to appreciate and respect them, so that you can camp and hike safely and add to your pleasures in bear country. Perhaps most importantly, do not unnecessarily approach bears, never feed or leave attractants for bears. Help keep bears wild!
When planning for travel in bear country, include considerations of group size, travel routes and camping sites. Secure methods of garbage handling are f-is;ential. As a pm caution, one should carry noise makers and a deterrent (usually a spray). If possible, register your trip with a responsible agency or person.
While working or hiking in bear habitats, be alert and aware of your surroundings, look ahead, check on wind direction, and stop and listen every so often. Watch for bear signs such as tracks and diggings. Try and see the bear before it sees you. In prime bear habitats where trees or bushes obscure visibility, announce your presence by making noise, using your voice, bells, air horns, or whistles.
If possible, avoid very dense vegetation especially if there is fresh sign or obvious bear foods. If you see a bear, enjoy it from a distance; give it time to leave, or detour around it. In the backcountry, choose your camp near trees that can be climbed in an emergency. Cook away from your sleeping area and use dried or precooked foods that are not strong on odour. Store food and garbage in airtight containers and suspend at least 5 metres from the ground and between two trees. If you can, sleep in a tent, preferably in the middle. Use clean sleeping clothes that do not smell of food. Pack out your garbage and leftover food.
Dealing with an Encounter
Despite all precautions, there is always the chance of running into a bear at close quarters. Remember, it may be just as frightened as you are! How you react is an important factor in how the bear reacts to you. Stay calm, do not run or make sudden moves or noises. Try to identify the species of bear. Is it a female with cubs? Is it feeding, or travelling in approach or retreat? Is it aware of you?
If the bear has not detected you, don’t shout to attract its attention. Back slowly off towards cover or a tree you can climb while occasion¬ally glancing at the bear to see what it is doing. Do not stare intently. Upon reaching cover or a safe distance, you may want to detour around the animal. If you have to pass through the area, make sure the bear is downwind and gets your scent. If the bear has spotted you, it may stand on its hind legs and swing or elevate its head to pick up your smell; it is trying to identify you. Similarily, a surprised animal may suddenly wheel around or rise quickly with ears back and hair erect—this bear has been frightened, but is not necessarily dangerous. Act in the same way as above; stay calm and wait quietly for the bear’s reaction. Allow it a chance to retreat. If it runs towards you, it [nay make a sudden turn about and withdraw. Remember that such threat behaviour evolved, in part, to prevent physical contact and subsequent injury.
If a bear approaches rapidly and you cannot climb a tree in time, you are well-advised to draw your pepper spray can or other bear deterrent, and be prepared to use it. If you have chosen to carry a spray, you should have practised confident and rapid drawing action beforehand. Consider wind direction; the spray may drift back towards you! If the bear is within 6-8 metres and closing, a couple of short blasts directed at its face, may be enough to discourage the charge.
In the event of an all-out attack by a grizzly, it may be best to drop to the ground and play dead. Bring your knees up tight against your chest in a fetal position and protect your head by clasping your hands together behind your neck with your face to the ground. However, if you have reason to believe that a bear is stalking you as a potential prey, then you should fight back as hard as you can. These predatory bears, usually blacks, attack without hesitation. Extend your arms, get up high so as to appear as large as possible. Use the spray or any weapon such as a rock or sturdy branch. Defend yourself by any means. The bear may give up the struggle and depart. Fortunately, these nightmarish situations are extremely rare, and the vast majority of bears are well-behaved, if we give them some room.