Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bear Safety

     In many areas of the country we are still surrounded by cold weather and snow.  It may seem like it is going on forever with no end in sight, however tomorrow is the first day of March.  Daylight savings time starts on March 10th (remember to change your clocks!), and the Spring Equinox is on March 20th.  It may seem like we are stuck in a never ending cycle of snow, but spring is on its way! 
     Spring means warm weather is coming and hiking will no longer require cumbersome coats, numerous winter accessories, and even snow shoes in some places to just walk around.  As we start to get out and hiking and enjoy the world waking back up, it is a good thing to remember that not only the plants are waking up, but the animals as well.  Specifically, bears.

     There are many people who have never seen a bear in their life, and there are others who haves seen dozens, or even hundreds.  As the hiking season gets ready to start up with the melting of the snow, it is important to remember that we are not necessarily the only ones on the trails out there.  It is also important to remember how to deal with bears should we ever come across them.

     In the United States we have three species of bears, the first of these being Ursus maritimus, the Polar Bear.  Due to its remote habitat, it is unlikely that most hikers would ever run into these bears.  The two bears you are most likely to run into are Ursus arctos horribillis, the Grizzly Bear, also known as the Brown Bear, and Ursus americanus, the Black Bear.

     Should you encounter a bear it can be important to know what kind of bear it is, this way you can determine how you should react.  Despite specific colors used in the names of each type of bear, color is not a good way to determine what type of bear you are looking at.  Both Grizzlies and Black Bears can range in color from black to blonde, and Black Bears can even be white.

     Size is a better way to determine what type of bear you are looking at.  Black bears are generally smaller, and are on average between 100 and 300 hundred pounds, and can weigh up to 400 pounds.  Meanwhile, Grizzly Bears are larger.  Females on average weigh 350 pounds, and males weigh 500 pounds, and can reach up to 800 pounds.

     The shape of the bear is another good way to determine what type of bear you are looking at.  There are four features in specific that you can look at.  The first is the profile of the bear's face.  On black bears, the face is long and straight, while the Grizzly Bear's face has an indentation.  When looking at the face you can also take a look at the bear’s ears.  Black bears have longer more prominent ears, while Grizzly Bears have small round ears. 

      Another feature that you can look at is the bear’s rear section.  On a Grizzly the rump is lower than the front shoulders, while on the Black Bear it is higher than the shoulders.  The reason for this feature leads to perhaps the most noticeable and easily distinguishable trait that can help you distinguish between the two types of bears.  This is the shoulders.  On black bears there is no distinguishable hump up on the shoulders.  Meanwhile the Grizzly has distinct shoulder hump that is actually a large muscle group that allows for powerful digging.

     So what kinds of things do you need to understand about bears, and what to do should you encounter one?  The first thing to know and keep in mind is that bear attacks in the wild are rare.  So while you should be alert, and wary of bears, you should not panic or be afraid of them.  At the same time you should keep in mind a few different things to help minimize your risk when you are travelling in bear country.

     There are three cardinal rules when it comes to bear.  Number 1: Never approach a bear.  Don't do it.  This is not a stuffed animal or a pet.  The bear does not want a picture with you.  The bear does not want to hug you.  There bear will not let your ride it.  Don't be stupid and STAY AWAY from the bear. 

     Rule number 2: Do not feed a bear.  It is hazardous for you and hazardous for the bear.  If a bear becomes dependent on food, it will stop relying on itself for food, and if the food is cut off abruptly, the bear would starve.  Feeding the bear also gives the bear an association of food being with people.  This can lead bears to wander into more populated areas, and as it becomes a problem the bear can be killed.  Another reason not to feed the bear is because it might decide that food was good and it wants more, and that could be you.  There is a particular example of a mother who thought it would be cute to get a picture of a bear licking honey off of her toddler's hand.  The bear instead ate the toddler’s hand.  DO NOT feed the bear!

     Rule Number 3:  Stay 100 yards (a football field length) from bears at all times.  Why?  Because, remember number 1, you don't want to approach a bear!  Also because you don't want the bear to approach you.  Bears are fast.  You cannot out run a bear.  Think you can?  Usain Bolt, considered by many to be the fastest man alive, ran the 100m at 27 miles per hour.  Grizzly Bears can run at 40 miles per hour, and Black Bears can be even faster.  Oh yah, and they can also run sideways.  They will catch you.

     This video is an example of exactly how fast these bears can move.  To see the bear start at around the 1:00 minute mark:


     Now you know your three cardinal rules, but what other things can you do to prevent an encounter with a bear?  Rule number 2, Don't Feed a Bear, gives us an idea of where to start.  Many bears know that they can get easy food from humans, whether it is from a dumpster or a campsite, so if you are in bear country, be careful with your food.  First things first, don't cook or store food near your tent.  You have to sleep in your tent, and if the bear goes rooting into your tent for food, it will find you wrapped up nice and neat in a sleeping bag for it.

     Keeping this in mind, if you have been cooking, you want to change your clothes before going to bed as well, for the exact same reason.  Also don't put those clothes in the tent with you, because you just took them off so you and your tent don't smell like food.

     Use a bear bag.  This is recommended in bear country and in some places that you hike through, it is even required, and for a good reason.  Bear bags are for anything that might attract a bear.  This means food, but it also includes items with strong smells such as toothpaste or bug spray, because those smells could also attract a bear.  If you don't have a bear bag you will need a bear proof storage container.

     When you hang a bear bag you want it to be at least ten feet above the ground so a bear can't reach it.  If you are in grizzly territory, you may want your bag to be higher.  If you are on Kodiak Island, Alaska, you will want your bag even higher than that.  A subset of the Grizzly Bears, Kodiak bears are believed to be an example of island gigantism.  They can weigh up to 2,500 pounds and be as tall as 14 feet.
Kodiak Bear.  That is big!

     Now you might think to put your food in a safe place, and remember to cook away from your tent.  However you also must think of the end results of cooking as well.  Make sure to keep your campsite clean.  Wash your dishes, away from the campsite if possible, wipe down tables, and dispose of trash, by burning completely if necessary.  Don't bury trash, because a bear can still smell it.

     These things should help limit the possibility of a bear coming into your campsite.  What if you are hiking though?  Most bear attacks happen when people surprise a bear, who then tries to defend a food source or offspring.  If the bear knows you are there, it will likely leave you alone.  So if you are hiking you want to make enough noise so that you don't come around a corner to find yourself staring down a surprised bear.  You can do this by talking, singing, or wearing a bell.  Traveling with a group is safer as well, because groups are nosier and there are multiple people to scare a bear off if you encounter it.

     When you are hiking, keep in mind that bears are more active at dawn and dusk, rather than in the middle of the day.  It is also a good idea to keep an eye out for any bear signs such as bear tracks and scat.

     You have done everything right.  You have kept your campsite clean and food in a safe spot.  You have made noise, and made sure a bear knows you’re in the area.  You still encounter a bear.  What now?  First things first, stay calm.  Panic is not going to help, and it may cause you to do something stupid, which in consequence could result in getting attacked and possibly killed.  Second, DO NOT RUN.  Remember, bears are faster than you, and it will catch you.  When you run it marks you out as prey and can insight a predatory reaction out of an animal.  If you run, it may cause the bear to chase you.  So don't run.

      When you first run into the bear, give it room.  If the bears behavior changes, then you are too close and you should back away slowly.  If the bear's behavior hasn't changed, try and determine if it sees you.  If not, back away quickly and quietly and detour around the bear.

     The bear sees you.  Now what?  If you are further away you want to make noise, just like when you are hiking, but don't yell, just talk in a normal voice.  Sudden loud noises or movements can trigger an attack.  Waving your arms can also help in getting the bears attention.  You want to the bear to recognize you as a human.  If the bear stands on its hind legs, and waves its nose in the air, this is not necessarily a sign of aggression, because bears will often stand to get a better view of something.

     To know if a bear is getting aggressive or agitated look to see if they are swaying their head, huffing or clacking their teeth, if their head is lowered, or if their ears are laid back.  These can all be a sign that the bear is getting agitated.  A bluff charge is something else a bear may try in an encounter.  The bear may run, and then veer off or stop abruptly to try and scare you off.  Remember rule number 2, DO NOT RUN!  Instead you want to stand your ground until the bear stops, and then slowly back away.

     Another thing to note.  When you are backing away from a bear, climbing a tree is not a good escape mechanism.  At the very least you may find yourself up in a tree with a bear waiting at the bottom for you.  If it is a Grizzly Bear, it may just rip down the tree you are in.  If it is a Black Bear it may join you in a tree, and if there is anything worse than being on the ground with a bear, its being in a tree with a bear.

     Now if the bear does attack, what you do depends on what kind of bear it is that is attacking.  This is why you should be able to distinguish the difference between Grizzly Bears and Black Bears.  If a Grizzly Bear attacks you want to play dead in the hopes that the bear stops feeling threatened, loses interest and goes away.  To do this you should lie face down on the ground with your hands around the back of your neck, and your legs spread slightly apart.  If you have a pack on, leave it on to protect your back.  Stay silent and do not move for as long as you can, till you are sure the bear is gone.  It is common for bears to watch from a distance and come back if they see movement.

     If a Black Bear attacks however, you should take different approach.  Fight back.  Yes that doesn't sound like the best advice.  Man vs. Bear, you would assume the bear being bigger and stronger, and having claws would win.  However the point of fighting back is to prove that you are not easy prey and try and scare the bear away. 

     You want to be loud, waive your arms and stand your ground.  Waiving your arms and standing as tall as you can will make you look bigger to help discourage the bear from wanting to pick a fight with you.  You can throw rocks and sticks to help be more aggressive and discourage the bear.  If you have pepper spray use that, but make sure you have been trained to use it before trying to use it during an attack.

     With a black bear there is one time where playing dead is a better option.  This is when you are being attacked by a mother who is protecting their cubs.  In this case aggressiveness may only further provoke an attack as the mother tries to protect her children.

     Now that you have visions of bears coming out from behind every tree in the woods ready to attack, go back to the first point in this post.  Bear attacks are rare.  It is unlikely that you will ever experience a bear attack.  However, in the unlikely event that you do find yourself in that situation these tips should help you come out of the situation unscathed. 
     When we go out into the woods it is important to be just as prepared as we are for everyday life disasters and end of the world disasters, because in life it is what you are unprepared for that is going to get you.  So enjoy the weather as it warms up, get out and enjoy the woods, and if you run into a bear, now you are prepared to face it.


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