A recent bear encounter story reminded us of an article we contributed to PREPARE Magazine years ago with black and grizzly bear safety tips using data from the U.S. Forest Service and a great organization called Be Bear Aware.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, black bears can be found across most of North America, whereas grizzly / brown bears are found in the northwestern states, Alaska and western Canada.
Both black and grizzly/brown bears may visit areas of human use because they find or smell food. Food can include unsecured garbage, birdseed, pet food, fruit trees and some gardens.
Drought, wildfire and urban development can cause bears to roam farther in search of new food sources. Young bears sometimes travel long distances in search of an area not already occupied by another bear.
Black bear versus The Grizzly
Black bears are the smallest of the North American bears and live in almost every part of the continent. But don’t let their name fool you since their fur can be black, various shades of brown, or blond. There is even one race that is smoky-blue and another race is pure white. But most black bears have long, black hair over most of its body with a splash of white on their chests.
BeBearAware.org explains Alaskan brown bear and the grizzly bear are recognized as separate species although mammologists generally agree they are one and the same animal. Bear experts admit they are unable to tell the animals apart, but one distinct difference is Alaskan brown bears are huge, formidable animals that may weigh as much as 1,500 pounds while large grizzlies can tip the scales at a top weight of about 800 pounds.
- Colors include black, brown, blond, cinnamon, and rust. The most common snout color is light brown and some rare face colors are blue and white.
- Average weight in the West is 100 – 300 pounds, with males usually larger than females. Males may weigh up to 400 or more pounds, with some as large as 800 pounds!
- Height is 2.5 – 3 feet at the shoulder when standing on all fours and 5 feet standing upright.
- Rump is higher than front shoulders; it does not have a shoulder hump/muscle.
- Face profile is straight; muzzle is long.
- Ears may be long and prominent.
- Front claws are less than 2 inches long, dark colored, sharp, curved, and good for climbing. Claw marks do not always show in tracks.
- Color varies from blond to black. Often medium- to dark-brown legs, hump, and underparts with light-tipped (grizzled) fur on head and upper body.
- Average weight is 500 pounds for males and 350 for females. Males may weigh up to 800 pounds. (Note: Alaskan brown bears may weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.)
- Average height is 3.5 – 4 feet at shoulder when on all fours, and 6 –7 feet when standing upright.
- Distinctive shoulder hump is actually muscle mass that enables powerful digging.
- Rump is lower than shoulder hump.
- A dished-in profile between eyes and end of snout helps distinguish grizzlies from black bears.
- Ears are round and proportionately small.
- Front claws are 2 – 4 inches long, usually light colored.
Possible Conflicts with Humans and Pets
Most conflicts with black bears are the result of people unintentionally feeding bears, most often by allowing them access to household garbage or bird feeders. They raid dumpsters, garbage cans and grills looking for an easy meal. They might enter a building by walking on automatic doormats or breaking screen doors and windows to look for food they smell.
Although uncommon, black bear attacks on humans occasionally occur, especially in areas where they come into frequent contact with hunters or people and their game or food. Grizzly attacks (although rare) happen but usually it is because humans wander into their territories while hiking, bear watching, camping or hunting.
If you are camping, hiking, fishing or hunting in bear country it is critical to store your food, toiletries, bait, fish or game, and garbage properly at all times. And make sure you learn the local regulations for the area you visiting.
What Should I Do If I See a Bear?
- Remain calm and avoid sudden movements.
- If you see a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, detour quickly and quietly.
- Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. If you are far enough and a safe distance away, enjoy the view but stay aware. If a bear changes its behavior, it is warning you so back away immediately.
- If a bear spots you, you want it to know you’re human so talk in a normal voice, group together and back away. Try not to show fear. Bears use all their senses to try to identify what you are.
- Remember that a standing bear is not always a sign of aggression. Many times, bears will stand to get a better view of what it smells and hears.
- Do not turn around and try to run from it. This will excite the bear. It can easily outrun you since they can run faster than 30 mph.
- If a bear starts to approach, and you have bear spray, prepare to use it, if necessary, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. Direct spray downwards (using one or both hands) since the cloud will billow up.
If a Black Bear Charges…
- Throw something onto the ground (like a camera or a hat, bandanna or handkerchief) if the bear pursues you, as it may be distracted by this and allow you to escape.
- Be loud, group together, stand your ground and, if necessary, use your bear spray creating a barrier between you and the bear.
- If it makes or is about to make contact, fight back vigorously using any object you have like rocks, sticks, hiking poles, binoculars or bare hands or use your bear spray.
If a Grizzly Bear Charges and Makes Contact…
- Play dead, lying on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, try to keep rolling until you land back on your stomach.
- Remain still and try not to struggle or scream.
- Once the bear backs off, stay quiet and still for as long as you can. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.
To prevent further problems:
If you live in bear country, take responsibility for not attracting them. Always work with your neighbors to achieve a consistent solution to the problem situation, and keep in mind that doing a combination of things is better than doing just one.
- Be aware that human behaviors, such as feeding other animals, can attract bears.
- Feed your pets inside or remove uneaten pet food between feedings.
- Remove garbage regularly or keep in secure buildings.
- Remove other enticing food sources, such as birdseed, hummingbird feed (sweet liquid), fruit from trees or shrubs located near buildings.
- Remove brush and cover around homes and corrals, creating a 50-yard barrier.
- Fences, lighting and dogs have not been found to be effective, long-term deterrents. Bears are good climbers, so to reduce a bear’s ability to get over a fence, it should be at least 6 feet tall and constructed of non-climbable material.
To learn more visit www.bebearaware.org
Our above article originally appeared in PREPARE Magazine’s Oct 2013 digital issue. Learn how to subscribe to PREPARE Magazine’s digital and print magazine at www.preparemag.com.