VIDEO: “Top 10” Bear Safety Tips

Posted In: "How To", Alaska, Blog, National Parks, Safety, Video, Wildlife, Yellowstone

Bears are an ongoing topic of interest for many of us who camp. We often joke about the prospects of being killed and eaten by a bear. But hey, it does actually happen to a few people every year. It certainly would be a terrifying way to die. Amongst the general public, it ranks right up there with shark attack and plane crash on the fear scale.

When it came time to put together a video about bears, I enjoyed reviewing footage that we’ve shot over the years.

We’ve seen a plethora of bears throughout North America. As you might expect, the majority of our sightings have happened in the Western states of Wyoming and Montana, and in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Yukon Territory. But in recent years, black bear populations have been growing in areas you might not expect, like the Gulf Coast and New England. Believe it or not, black bear sightings have become commonplace along the Florida panhandle, where they rummage through dumpsters and landfills like large raccoons.

This video has several goals. In addition to sharing some fun footage of bears (including a few bear observers acting like idiots), we want to discuss wise methods of interacting with these incredible creatures.

We’re proud that this video includes commentary by Kerry Gunther of the National Park Service. Mr. Gunther is the chief bear management biologist at Yellowstone National Park. That makes him one of the world’s foremost experts on bear behavior. When Mr. Gunther speaks, I hope we all listen — and heed his sage advice.

I’ll never forget my own first few days working in Yellowstone National Park. The year was 1991. As a fresh faced college student (also known as “cheap labor”), I arrived early in the season to unpack and set up the dining hall at Canyon Lodge. In my off-hours I explored the empty park. Lake Yellowstone was frozen, and snow drifts still existed throughout the higher altitude areas. Tourists had not yet arrived, so the park’s scenic viewpoints and hiking trails were noticeably vacant. Yet we knew the bears had emerged from their dens.

When hiking a quiet trail in bear country, you quickly appreciate the fact that you are no longer atop the local food chain. On those empty hiking trails in 1991, things were quiet – a little too quiet. I always feared rounding a corner on a hiking trail and coming across a grizzly in a surprise encounter. Thankfully, this never happened to me.

Then there were our days of tent camping in Yellowstone. Frankly, every tent camper with a grain of common sense has bear safety in mind. Late in the evening, when the campfire is put out and the tent is zipped shut, rest assured that you will be thinking about bears. Hopefully you started your bear prep before you started packing your tent. After all, you are separated from wild bears by a thin slice of cloth.

Yes, in a tent, you are almost entirely exposed to whatever bear may happen across your path. “Any bear that enters your tent at night does not have good intentions,” says Kerry Gunther. “In that scenario, you definitely want to fight back.” But bears have been known to wander into RV campsites too.

Creating our bear video really helped me achieve some clarity with regards to dealing with bear encounters.

To best handle bear encounters, one should understand the differences between black and brown bears. Perhaps even more important is to understand something about bear psychology.

 Bears react differently depending on the type of encounter.

The bear safety issue cuts both ways. We all have an instinctive fear of bears, at least those of us who value self-preservation. Yet with each passing year I grow a little more sensitive to the needs of our fearful furry friends. The needs of bears? Have I gone mad? Well, bears may not be people, but they are fellow mammals who typically just want to go about their business without being bothered. Bears usually avoid human beings. When you think about how often people act foolishly around bears, it’s remarkable how few attacks actually happen.

Many bears are killed by humans every year. In addition to those that directly fall prey to hunters, some bears are deemed “nuisance bears” by the National Park Service. Nuisance behavior can be created and reinforced by humans who misbehave. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. This is because nuisance bears, sadly, are often subsequently euthanized by the NPS.

Often bear lives are jeopardized by humans who misbehave in their presence. It never fails. Whenever we see a bear in a public place like a national park, we inevitably see a few people who misbehave. I guess the worst form of misbehavior would be to carelessly approach a wild grizzly bear in a manner that results in a human being’s death. But other misbehavior might be to feed a wild bear (which will inevitably result in the bear’s death). Thankfully, we had no footage of wild bears killing or being fed by humans.

Lest you think that we sound like a bunch of spoilsports, please remember that we love bears and bear sightings. Nothing gets my pulse pumping like a wild bear encounter. My informal wildlife viewing policy is to stop for every bear we see.

I can’t help it; I simply find bears fascinating.

 Thus I am sympathetic to all of those city slicker tourists who get excited when seeing bears in the wild. I get excited too, and am the first to break out my camera gear. The idea here is to have enjoyable encounters with bears.
The odds of being killed by a bear are incredibly remote (probably one in 30 million, or something similar). There’s no reason to be deathly afraid of bears. Instead, strive to be respectful of bears. Armed with the right knowledge, even a surprise encounter with a bear need not end in disaster.

In the video we reference Counter Assault bear spray. While I wish this stuff was less expensive, it delivers some wonderful peace of mind when hiking. If you view the purchase from this perspective, you don’t need to actually fire the spray to get good value from it. Even if you never use the bear spray (and hopefully you will never need to do so), you will be happy you have it on the hiking trail. As you will see in the video, our bear spray gave us some confidence during a surprise encounter that we filmed in Grand Teton National Park.

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