The recalcitrant black bear brought to an end a day when too much time was wasted on Facebook engaged in discussions about bears.
They focused mainly on protection: bells, air horns, flares, pepper spray, guns, other people.
Alaskans can’t seem to avoid a preoccupation with bear attacks in summer even if attacks are rare and to some greater or lesser degrees avoidable.
If you really, truly want protection from bears, surround yourself with lots of other people. Bears simply do not attack large groups of people.
Or at least they do not do that when aware they are facing a large group of people. Ten people stretched over 100 yards of brushy trail is not a group. They are 10 people.
To earn safety in numbers, you and your friends need to stay within a few feet of each other and calmly maintain that contact if you encounter a bear. If you scatter in panic, all bets are off.
But if you group-up and tell the bear, or bears, to go away, your bear problem will be resolved peacefully. If you don’t want to limit yourself to group activities or clinging to the safety of downtown Anchorage , however, you need to learn a few things about bears:
- The bears are not your friends. Forget Yogi and Boo-boo and all that Walt Disney nonsense. Just because you’re nice to them doesn’t mean they will be dangerous to you. It is dangerous to think of bears as anything but potentially dangerous wild animals. Timothy Treadwell, a man some media portrayed after his death as an “amateur bear expert” (with no apparent recognition as to the contradiction in terms), came to believe the bears were his friends and over the span of more than a decade at Katmai National Park and Preserve got closer and closer to them. He petted, hugged, kissed and finally ended up dead inside the hyperphagic bear that made him a meal. That would be considered too close.
- The bears are not trying to kill you. Bears do not hunt humans. There are occasional predatory attacks. They are extremely rare. You are much more likely to be killed in a motor-vehicle accident in Alaska than to be attacked by a bear, let alone killed by one. Bear fears in Alaska outweigh bear attacks by many order of magnitude.
- Most people attacked by bears survive. I did, though I cheated a bit. I shot the bear off my leg.
- Black bears and grizzly bears are similar but in some ways very different animals. What you don’t see in the video above is the one, possibly two, cubs that were with this bear. They hid in the thick brush below the sow. Hanging around to yell at a grizzly with cubs would have been foolish. Mama grizzlies are notoriously aggressive. Mama black bears are posers. They might feign an attack, but 99 times out 100 (likely more), it’s a bluff. Mama black bears are seldom a real threat.
- Wild bears and human-habituated bears are different. Bears are intelligent animals. Like the smartest of canines, they learn. A lot of Anchorage bears learn that people can largely be ignored. This bear clearly had learned. She was gorging herself on horsetail and dandelions, and wasn’t going to move just because some human wanted to get past on the trail. To the degree that habituated bears know people, they are also somewhat more predictable than wild bears. They’re not immediately forced to make a split-second decision as to fight or flight when they encounter a strange, two-legged animal.
Man versus bear
Could this bear have been pushed off the trailside by someone, or a group, aggressive enough? Almost certainly, but I have to admit to a certain empathy for mother bears trying to put on weight in the short Alaska summer in order to survive the long Alaska winter.
This bear was clearly hungry. She ignored shouts to get out of the trail. Obviously, a bell wouldn’t have done anything. An airhorn might have worked if you got up close and blew it in her ear.
Maybe a “warning shot,” but I long ago gave up on warning shots. They are a waste of ammunition. All but one I ever fired in front of a bear was ignored.
Pepper spray is far, far better. I had a can in the Mountain Feed Bag attached to the handlebar of the bike, but I’m not going to spray some poor, mama black bear because she ignores an old mountain biker yelling at her.
She wasn’t aggressive. She was dining on wild vegetation instead of trying to get into neighborhood garbage, dog food or chicken coops. Would I have preferred she was more skittish around people?
Yes, but not concerned enough to try to teach her a lesson even though harassing the bears can sometimes be good for both them and us. The National Park Service has for years been hazing human-curious bears in the Katmai and Denali parks to teach them humans are bad news and should be avoided.
Living with bears is not always easy or simple. The tools for interspecies communication are blunt. And sometimes the bears don’t understand that humans rule the planet.
The latter bears are dangerous. But you could spend a lifetime in the Alaska wilderness and never meet one.
Still, if you do, hope you have some kind of weapon for self-protection.
Cue the debate
The late-Stan Price, the bear man of wild Admiralty Island, used a walking stick to whack the neighborhood grizzlies if they got unruly. Charlie Vandergaw, the wild-bear trainer of the Susitna Valley, sometimes used a cattle prod and maintained an electric fence around his remote cabin just in case.
Anchorage contractor Gene Moe fought off a grizzly with a knife. There are better tools if you need them.
Pepper spray has driven off a lot of bears. It’s cheap, relatively light, easy to carry and safe. If you accidentally shoot yourself, you won’t die.
But it’s not perfect. There is an ongoing debate about whether the spray failed a Wyoming guide who died last fall. There are some who believe he might have been mortally wounded before he sprayed the bear that killed him.
They also know a gun didn’t help in this case, but mainly because dead-guide Mark Uptain’s client didn’t know how to use it. When the client couldn’t get the handgun to fire, he threw it toward Uptain and fled.
Handguns have a bad reputation as inadequate bear stoppers in Alaska, but when former peace officer Dean Weingarten scoured the internet for stories about bears shot with handguns, he found handguns were effective about 97 percent of the time.
Still, ballistics argue for bigger, more powerful weapons. U.S. Forest Service investigators who studied the issue ranked large-caliber magnum rifles tops.
Bigger, unfortunately, also means bulkier and heavier. Smaller, lighter weapons are easier to keep handy, and if a bear attacks, the best weapon is always the one in your hand.
That said, the best protection might come from using your head. Take out the earbuds and pay attention to the world around you. If you happen to find yourself in an area with a lot of bear sign, be even more attentive than usual.
Learn to tell a black bear from a grizzly. Study up on the behavior of both. Learn to read their simple ways of telling you they’re not happy – hair standing on end, teeth popping, growling or roaring.
And if the bear doesn’t want you to use a trail, acquiesce to the bear. I did although I will admit to situations in which I did otherwise, including a couple cases in which I drove bears off their kills. Absolutely do not do that unless you are well armed with a firearm you know so well and have used so often it’s like an extension of your body.
Firearms require skill and practice. About the worst mistake you could make in terms of bear safety is to buy or borrow a firearm thinking the mere possession of the weapon will make you safe. It could well just make you more dangerous both to yourself and others.
The story was updated and edited from the original.