In the Field

Bear Attacks and How to Avoid Them

bear attacks and how to avoid them

Bears are among the most admired, respected, and also feared creatures on the planet. Indeed, the bear is both a beauty and a beast! In our more modern day, however, the beauty of the bear is often overshadowed by its more savage nature. Popular movies and TV shows often portray the bear as a ferocious monster and nothing else. Most books about bears in stores and tourist areas display titles featuring drooling, blood-lust crazed beasts with huge, sharp teeth, seemingly coming right off of the cover to devour the passers-by! In the extremely rare instance of a bear mauling or fatal attack at a national park or other frequently visited wilderness areas, the story instantly becomes a shocking, worldwide news sensation. The result of all the negative publicity is the instilling of an even deeper sense of foreboding fear of bears and a tremendous paranoia…or “bearanoia” if you prefer. Much of the worldwide public is so conditioned to have an irrational fear of bears, that just the sight of one can cause a near panic attack! And, in many cases, this conditioned negative response is to blame for the needless killing and harming of countless bears, who were in reality just minding their own business, being curious, or passing through…and not about to launch a vicious attack. In such cases, knowledge, along with simple deterrent devices and procedures, could have easily remedied the situation with no permanent harm to the bear.

why bears attack
Bears have been portrayed in many negative ways throughout the years.

 

A study of bear mauling/attack statistics from reliable sources will show that human beings have a much better chance of being struck by lightning than being harmed by a bear. In fact, far more people are harmed and killed by such things as a tiny tick. As an example, the bear population on Kodiak Island, Alaska, is around 3500 of the largest bears on earth. Every year, thousands of people venture into bear country on the island to enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities. In the last 100 years, there has only been one bear-related death. While non-fatal maulings do occur much more regularly than fatal ones, they’re still rare given the number of people who spend time in bear country. These statistics vary from location to location, but the point is that the vast majority of bears are not savagely roaming the wilderness in a relentless, bloodthirsty hunt for their next human victim. Most bears are rather shy and reclusive by nature and want nothing to do with people…including having them on the menu.

All that being said though, make no mistake; while bear attacks and deaths are very rare in the grand scheme of things, they do happen! Every so often we get a grim reality check. In the last few years alone there have been several fatal bear attacks by black bears, polar bears, as well as grizzly and brown bears.

Wild bears, and the places they call home demand the utmost respect and care! Bears are like people in many ways: they don’t appreciate it much and can get very angry if you mess with their living quarters, their food, their family, their personal space, or when you wake them up from a nap. These are the leading causes of bear attacks, and in a smaller number of cases, it’s often a matter of mistaken identity on the part of the bear, such as instances of hunters being mauled while caring for the game meat they harvested. No matter the specific cause though, many, if not most, bear mauling’s and fatal attacks are the result of individuals who are not properly educated about bear safety protocol, or, who just blatantly ignore bear country etiquette. Keep in mind, individuals who do not adhere to proper behavior around bears also put other people at great risk. An important point to remember is that how one interacts with bears not only dictates the outcome of the encounter for one’s self, but it also influences how that bear will react to future encounters with humans. Thus, an improper bear encounter puts you, future people, and the bears themselves in potential danger.

bear country safety
Improper bear/human interactions put you, the bear, and future people at great risk!

 

There are many different species and subspecies of bears throughout the world, including the polar bear, brown bear (of which the grizzly and Kodiak bear are subspecies of) the American black bear, spectacled bear, Asiatic black bear, sun bear, and the panda bear. Though these different bears vary in size and behavior, and even bears among their own species can vary in personality traits, such as levels of aggressiveness, bears of any kind generally attack for one of four reasons:

  1. Threatening their food (or what they perceive as their food)
  2. Threatening their personal space (surprising them)
  3. Threatening their young (even when done so unintentionally)
  4. Predation (though very rare, some bears do intentionally prey on people)

If you’re going to be spending time in bear country, it’s vitally important to learn all you can about the particular species of bears that may inhabit the area you’ll be visiting in order to keep both yourself and the bears safe. Checking in with local authorities, getting educated on bear behavior, obeying local laws, and being “bear aware” is critical before heading out to the wilderness. Let’s take a closer look at the primary causes of bear attacks…

 

Threatening their food

 Though they’re often referred to as carnivores, bears are actually omnivores, and they eat a wide variety of foods including plants, animals, fish, insects, carrion, and garbage. Food is obviously an important part of a bear’s life, and although most bears don’t spend all of their time looking for it, they do strive for efficiency while gathering and consuming the food they need to survive. That being the case, bears can get quite protective and sometimes very aggressive when their food is threatened.

Therefore, It’s important to be aware of what types of food sources are in the area you’re visiting that could possibly attract bears, and to then make it a point to avoid those areas if possible, or at least be very cautious! Additionally, it’s also important to make sure that bears are not attracted to your food either, which can be done by keeping a clean camp or picnic area, picking up after yourself, using bear-proof food containers, coolers or portable electric fence, keeping food out of living and sleeping quarters such as tents, and in many cases, simply exercising common sense. Bears have the best nose on the planet and they live by their sense of smell, so being hyper-aware of food or other attractive odors around bears is critical for safety. As it’s often said, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” When bears get rewarded time and time again by easy access to human-related food sources, they often get into trouble and end up being killed. So keep yourself safe and the keep bears wild by not tempting them with your cheeseburger and fries or other tasty treats!

A final point to consider is that if you’ll be doing things such as fishing, hunting or berry picking while in bear country, and essentially sharing the same food sources with them, it’s vitally important to follow the recommended safety procedures for the area you’ll be in, which again, can differ quite a bit depending on the location and the particular species of bear, so be sure to check with local authorities before heading to the river or the berry bushes.

Bear’s often have to work very hard for their food. Thus, they can be exceptionally protective of it!

 

Threatening their personal space

 Nobody likes their personal space invaded or to be rudely awakened from sleep. If someone broke into your house, wandered around in your backyard, or stumbled into your bedroom, you’d no doubt be pretty upset…and you may even react with aggression while fearing for your safety or that of your family. It’s no different for bears. While some bears may react to such an invasion by running away, others may lash out with a violent attack to neutralize what they perceive as a threat. Again, the specifics about what particular safety procedures to practice in a particular area for a particular species of bear will differ somewhat, but the bottom line is that bears don’t like being intruded upon and can get very upset about it. So before heading into bear country, you need to know what areas and terrain features could be potential bedding locations for bears, such as thick, brushy areas close to food sources, and, it’s important to be educated on how to move through those areas safely and respectfully.

This is an especially important area of concern for photographers who sometimes try to close in on animals to get a better shot. There are plenty of methods for safely photographing bears without intruding on their personal space. NEVER attempt to sneak up on a bear to get a photograph! It can be a fatal mistake…for both the photographer as well as the bear. As a reminder, in 2012 a man was killed by a grizzly bear in Denali Park while apparently trying to photograph the animal at too close of a range. Along with the photographer tragically losing his life, the bear also ended up being killed as a part of the investigation, which is usually the case in such circumstances.

 

Threatening their young

 Mother bears are famously protective of their cubs. In fact, Hell hath no fury like a mama bear who fears her cubs are being threatened! This is because mother bears invest a great deal of their time and energy in raising their young. Mother bears (or sows, as they’re referred to) typically take care of their cubs for one to three years and teach them everything they know about where to find food, how to interact with other bears and animals, etc. One of the greatest threats to cubs can be adult male bears who prey on them both for food, as well as a means of making the female bear come back into heat. As a result, mother bears can be incredibly powerful and aggressive when it comes to defending their babies…against other bears, as well as anything else they perceive as a threat, which in many cases are humans.

By staying away from bear food sources, not attracting them with your food sources, and by steering clear of bedding areas, a great deal of potential bear conflicts, including conflicts with sows and cubs, can be avoided. However, there is always the potential of simply encountering a sow with cubs along a trail or river somewhere while in bear country, and there’s also the potential of a cub wandering away from his or her mother, resulting in the mother coming to look for it. Many bear maulings have occurred when a human accidentally gets in-between a sow and her cub. Extra attention should be given to completely avoiding sows and cubs whenever possible. If on a bear viewing or photography outing, sows and cubs (and all bears for that matter) should only be observed from a safe distance, in a safe circumstance, and while exercising EXTREME caution.

Mother bears aver very protective of their young.
Hell hath no fury like a mother bear who fears for her cub!

 

Predation

 In extremely rare circumstances, there have been cases of bears actively pursuing people as prey.  The reasons that bears actively prey on humans can vary, from desperation for food, an unusually aggressive personality, or other reasons. While most bears are either indifferent, wary, or curious of people, and they behave according to those dynamics, predatory bears are meticulous, patient, persistent stalkers. And, while the primary purpose of most bear attacks is to neutralize what the bear perceives as a threat, and will end as soon as that’s accomplished, predatory attacks continue until the prey is killed…or…fights back hard enough to end the attack.

why bears attack humans
Though extremely rare, there are cases of predatory bears stalking humans.

The specifics of what to do in the event of a bear attack is a whole other subject for an upcoming blog, so stay tuned for more information on that topic, but to quickly wrap things up, again, while bear attacks are a popular topic of sensationalized movies and books, and become huge headline stories on the rare occasions when they do happen, in the grand scheme of things, they’re still incredibly rare. Just like we humans, most bears simply want to peacefully live their lives as best they can, go about their business of being bears, and avoid unnecessary conflict as much as possible. But, also like we humans, they don’t like it when their food, family, or home turf is rudely invaded or threated. And, while some bears (and some people) will simply run away to avoid conflict, some will fight back and even kill to protect what they cherish most. So before heading into bear country, be sure to get well educated from local authorities, obey the local laws, be bear aware at all times, and enjoy these incredible creatures that we share our planet with.

To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.

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How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.