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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Most people attacked by bears survive. I did, though I cheated a bit. I shot the bear off my leg.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Two of the continent’s leading bear authorities last year suggested that if you’re in Alaska bear country, which is almost all of the 49th state, it’s foolish not to carry some means of self-defense. 

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.

Wyoming wildlife authorities know it was sprayed because they found pepper residue on its fur after they killed it. 

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.















8 replies »

  1. The only critters I ever had to shoot in self defense were all two legged. They’re more more dangerous esp when armed themselves and will also use their young for cover.

  2. Going by memory here so “bear” with me, but, how about that young grizzly shot near Girdwood last year whose snout and fur was covered with bear spray? He seemed to have aquired a taste for it.
    Also, did I read this correctly? “I did otherwise, including a couple cases in which I drove bears off their kills.” Somebody, on foot, driving a grizzly off his kill? Hope they had the GoPro going. That would be some damn good video.

  3. I had a can [of pepper spray] in the Mountain Feed Bag attached to the handlebar of the bike…

    Whatever the means of protection against attacks by bear, cougar or (more commonly) human, it has to be handy when it’s needed. Many people are mauled or assaulted, even though they are in possession of an effective deterrent at the time. Unfortunately, they could not get to their protection in a timely manner, and at the end of the incident it is still safely secured in a velcro or snapped holster, tucked away in a book-bag or backpack, or my favorite, zippered into a cute little waist or fanny pack. Wrong.

    The next big problem with deploying protection effectively, is that an enraged Mike Tyson weighing 600 pounds hits you at 20 mph … and your 12 gauge shotgun or can of pepper spray (which you were able to grab out of your very handy Mountain Feed Bag) is now off somewhere in the weeds or brush, and good chance you didn’t even see which direction it went flying.

    Maintaining control of your protection during the fight is where the various long-gun options gain half a step on the other choices, because they are already commonly fitted with slings, and slings are readily enhanced/extended, so that a.) you cannot drop the weapon, and b.) the weapon cannot be taken away from you and used against you.

    A can is not something that can be gripped securely during the rough & tumble. It should have a lanyard attached.

    When TSHTF, you need to lay hands on what’s going to save your buns, Stat. Then, you need to keep control of it, as all hell breaks loose.

    And of course it’s necessary to PRACTICE, to be skilled & effective with any means of defense, when it’s needed.

  4. I am no bear expert by any means. Let me get this straight upfront. Ha. But, I have had the pleasure of coming into contact with Coastals, inland grizzlies, and blackies on several occasions. I have never carried bear spray while some in the family do. I am glad to have it along and look at it as merely part of a combined effort to fend off a bear. I did come across 5 large bores spread out about 150 yds apart on a large sedge flat when I was traveling in Katmai. Huge mature bores. A pretty sight. The closest one locked onto me, his head swaying as big as a large microwave, he saundered on over with his “cowboy” stance, all bow legged while pissing all over hinself. It most certainly gets your attention. He came within 15yds of me before walking by to stop and stare. He then walked off to continue feeding. You realize then that even a 12ga might not be enough. Another time I was in Lake Clark and there were numerous brownies feeding on salmon. A sow with a lone cub seemed to take “refuge” near me from the juvenile males. She came over to about 20yds. Was pretty odd. I make myself known in fairly open areas. My assumption was this ole gal already had a cub or 2 eaten. The nervous cub stayed close to momma. The sow would chase after salmon up to 50-75yds away and then return near me to feed with her cub about 20yds away. A curious lone, large juvenile male did circle me at 40yds. But, I was able to keep him moving. Super experience which made for some great pics. I never approached a bear – period. Food was a plenty, so I felt sorta comfortable if that is possible.
    Hate to say it but, I had to remind myself a few times that these animals would rip your face off in a second. I find the inland grizzly to be a much more aggressive animal. Most of the ones I have seen always seem pissed off, always hungry and never satisfied. Saw a sow with 3 cubs once. She was on a mission for food. Super aggressive and I feel had I made my presence known she would have attacked for sure. She was exremely focused. Bit intimidating actually.
    I always hope for the best but prepare for the worst with them. In other words I expect trouble from them. My opinion is their lack of food pushes their aggression up a notch in search of it.
    It is funny but, I “trust” a passive black bore the least. Maybe it is because I am guessing at what I am getting. I simply do not “trust” them.
    I find bears are like people. Some look for trouble, some give way, some are always angry, but all are opportunists, and if the means eating you, they will.
    Again, I am no bear expert by any means. Just passing on some encounters. I have never had a surprise encounter with one though but, have smelled them on thick trails. Obviously a different beast if you will. Be safe to all this Summer.

    • Bryan,
      I like the sentence:
      “Most of the ones I have seen always seem pissed off, always hungry and never satisfied.”
      Sounds a lot like the dipnetters last summer…

  5. I think your #5 is underappreciated, at least in people country. Bears are intelligent and learn. I’ve seen them ride bicycles (in the Soviet Union). It’s all over once they learn about garbage, birdseed and dog food. If cubs are involved, the trait is passed to the next generation. The problem is mainly in people country. There is a lot of support for accommodating bears (bizarrely, even sharing the trails) because, afterall, the bears were here first. In bear country there is less support for that perspective.

  6. The bear in the header-picture of your June 22, 2017 article, Bear ignored spray (linked in this post), looks plump & well-fed. Yet the person this bear spent 45 minutes trying to take down assures us that this was a predatory attack.

    It’s an added complication, that predatory attacks are not strongly tied to the nutritional status of the bear.

    Feeding black bears exhibit a ‘claim & displacement’ dynamic, on foraging grounds, of a Territorial nature. Whether it’s turning over rocks by the dozens and quickly licking up a few bugs under each one, or rooting & grazing on vegetation, or methodically & repeatedly harvesting in the blue berry patches, black bears can ‘have an attitude’ about the ground they’re on and feed they’re working.

    When a bear is munching away and does not react to the appearance of humans, and especially if it ignores efforts to shoo it off, this looks more like confidence & dominance, than hunger. But the sow here is also teaching/showing the cub … ‘Just tell em to kiss it, sweetie’.

    There are people who ignore being properly tazed. This is generally credited to being “crazed”, or on-adrenaline, or just being too drunk to know. But there is evidence that those accountings are, or are at least sometimes ‘off the mark’. Official testing has revealed some of this (as bear-spray testing also revealed effectiveness shortfalls), but we also see eg individuals who experiment on themselves, and there are believable rumors of assorted illicit uses & application of the tazer … sometimes backfiring spectaculary.

    I would be wary of assuming that once the bear is full/fatted, the ‘i am ignoring you’ dynamic will change. The bears “displace” each other in these contexts, to assert dominance. Ignoring the people is more likely “standing her ground”, resisting what she experiences as kow-towing to interlopers trying to displace her.

    Dump-bear contexts were great for watching this. You see it at good salmon spots.

    Great post here Craig with good leads I’m going to have to come back and follow … after I go turn over my morning quota of rocks and lick the ants.

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