Get your ‘Bear’ings & Keep your Distance
In the wild, remain vigilant in all circumstances and certainly so when you roam in bear country! Having traveled quite a few remote and wild places I am becoming relatively good at it. However one late afternoon, I relaxed my attention after a long trek in the mountains of British Columbia and…
Claire is the founder of Earthwise Aware, which focuses on bringing biodiversity knowledge, ecological ethics, and environmental leadership to the heart of communities, and in the daily life of people. She strongly believes that individually and altogether we can be ethically & ecologically engaged–whoever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we are.
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We were approaching our lodge after having left the wild behind a good hour before. As any other evening over there, we would cross a little stone bridge over a river. I would go down to the stream to rinse my hiking boots. That day trek had been tiring for me, and all I wanted at that point was to replenish myself. That’s most likely what I was thinking about when going down that slope and not really paying attention to my surroundings – after all, we were not in the woods anymore… But then I heard the whisper of the woman I passed a few seconds before on that bridge. Even though the tone of her voice was very low and soft, I could still distinctly hear her saying ‘no no no…’. I literally froze and looked around intently. And right down in front of me was a cinnamon black bear. She was foraging some 20 yards away from me. Then I heard branches cracking up in some trees between me and left of that bear. Looking up I saw a little bear black in color, and then at the bottom of that tree was another black-colored cub!
I backed very slowly up to the bridge, stepping backward carefully while looking at the mother. She kept foraging quietly, she did not even give me a look. People don’t realize but these ‘nounours’ (A French endearing term for our teddy bears) charge and run very fast. Bears are incredibly strong. They have powerful teeth. And their claws can flay you alive. “They can rip through a nine-gauge chain link fence or 3/4 inch plywood”. Mano a mano, if a bear wants to hurt you, you can say ‘your prayers’. They don’t see very well at a great distance, but they have quite a nose. I suppose I was downwind and that she did not smell me because I was definitely awfully too close to them three. According to the Canadian rangers who warned us a day before of bears in the area, you should never be less than 100 yards of black bears when possible (and we’re talking about a relatively small bear here compared to Brown and Polar bears). I am not sure that you should not keep an even much bigger distance with a mum…
I really think that I was very lucky that day but I’ll admit that I am still in awe of that memory. Now, besides remaining ‘alert’ all the time in the wild, I also pay attention to my position relative to ‘things’ and I did learn over time to remain more or less aware of the direction in which the wind blows. It is valuable data when you have to think quickly about what your options are: which direction to move, at what speed and with which demeanor…
Bear selfies and distance again
When I tell that story, more than often I am asked if I took pictures of the event. My answer is categorical: NO and neither should you have done that if you had been in that situation!
One does not realize that this question reveals a big issue: the addiction now of a great majority of us to taking photographs in all circumstances despite the danger to oneself and to wildlife. Just in the summer of 2015, the overabundance of selfies with bears caused officials of a park in Colorado to shut it down . Is it really necessary to remind people that bears are dangerous? It seems like it. So we remind you or even break it to you: Bears are wild animals and can be dangerous due to their powerful teeth and jaws, and their claws that can flay you alive. Again, they can rip through nine-gauge chain link fence or three-quarter-inch plywood. Bears are incredibly strong! They are not necessarily aggressive towards humans, and a wild bear will usually avoid humans. However when they lose their fear of us or when we invade their space, it’s a different story. Bear experts keep telling us what to do and not do but not many are listening .
Now, besides the obvious danger, one does not realize that getting so close to bears, and getting them to be habituated to us, means they are very likely to become problem bears . And guess what happens to problem bears? Rehabilitation of problem bears costs money and does not guarantee a successful result. If they can’t be rehabbed (assuming that there is even a rehabilitation attempt), they ultimately get killed by the park authorities. They get killed because they are now considered dangerous (and indeed they became so), even if they did not attack a human but only threatens them (and rightfully so as we are invading their space). So it is critical that we refrain at all cost of getting close to them, feed them, and do whatever nonsensical non-bear things. When we are not respecting that 100 yards of separation, the only thing we prove in effect is that we loathe them more than we love them. Let’s keep that in mind for the sake of all.
What to do when encountering bears?
Whenever you’re traveling to bear country, it is critical that you learn how to behave around bears. Read before you leave. In the US, get to the closest national park service station and learn the skills so that you protect yourself, the others in your group and the bears.
A couple simple rules: Never get close to them – and by close, we mean that a proper distance has to be respected. For the Canadian rangers, whom we discussed with, that minimum distance is 100 yards. Never feed the bears intentionally or unintentionally (as when leaving your garbage out unsecured for instance).
“Don’t ever feed a bear anything and don’t ever leave any food scraps behind when you’re visiting the Park. If you care about the bears at all, if you want other people to be able to have safe visits to the Park, dispose of your garbage in bear-proof containers or carry out all your food, scraps, and garbage when you leave. Pack it in, pack it out. The Park endlessly preaches Leave No Trace, but some people just won’t listen.” 
But what do you do when you are caught by surprise by a bear?
Important clarification: Playing dead does not work when a black bear attacks… That’s only a recommended strategy when grizzly attacks. As taking refuge in a tree: that won’t deter a black bear either. Actually running and climbing usually provokes a chase response, and black bears are excellent at running and climbing trees.
Here are few recommendations from the US National Park Service (US Department of Interior): http://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm 
Also, check the Appendix 1 of ‘Bear in the Back Seat (…)’ . This appendix is very informative and goes into the details of explaining different situations as when you encounter a bear on the trail, at campground, etc. We actually feel that this book should almost be a MUST read for anybody visiting or living in bear country.
One remark to think about is Marc Bekoff’s “What about human responsibility for the risks that are taken when outdoors ‘in nature?’” (from a 2015’s article published shortly after the death of Blaze, the Grizzly mother ).
Remember that when we know and do the right things, we not only help protect ourselves, but we also protect the other visitors, hikers, residents and the bears.
The stories behind this article’s bears photographs
Since I had no picture of the event, then I asked around if any of our EwA followers had pictures of bears that they encountered and which of course had been taken at a proper distance. I ended up being flooded by beautiful pictures – all from afar – and for which I asked the story of the encountering. We selected pics of 3 bears that we have in North America: the American black bear (Ursus americanus); the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos ssp.), a subspecies of the brown bear; and the polar bear (Ursus maritimus).
Dave’s American black bears family was encountered in the Great Smoky Mountains (U.S.). The bears had come out of the woods right alongside the road before they got there, so there were several cars pulled over on both sides and some people had gotten out to watch them. Dave was roughly 40-50 feet away from this mother and cubs. Everyone pretty much kept their distance and mostly stayed behind their cars watching and photographing. The bears must have known the humans were there but they didn’t seem aware of them at all – which is actually a problem as this means they are not afraid of us and are likely to get closer to humans in the future.
Joyce’s gorgeous Polar bear was encountered in Manitoba (Canada), while she was doing citizen science focusing on measuring evidence of global warming near Churchill, a small town on Hudson Bay that’s on the frontline of climate change. They ran into this magnificent beast while walking from one field working site to another one. The bear was only 100 meters away walking straight towards them. Most likely it was a ‘she’ since female bears usually roam inland to avoid the big males who like to stay close to the coast. The team of researchers had a short minute before hastily having to retreat to their vehicle. A wise decision.
Lacey’s magnificent Grizzly bears pair was taken in Wyoming (U.S.) from afar (the photo is zoomed in). And the ones that you see tearing apart the human goods were taken at a wildlife sanctuary. They tore up a tent and did feast on the remains of a lunch. These are your problem bears: they are clearly not afraid of humans and the likely reason for this is our careless behavior . What will become of them is simple to understand: if they attack humans they will be put down. Being a mother does not change her fate as in the case of Blaze, a Grizzly mother with a clean record, which after the tragic killing an off-trail hiker last year was ‘terminated’ and her cubs sent to spend the rest of their lives in a zoo .
How did they come to behave this way? Here is one answer:
“This is how it happens – a wild bear cub is taught by its mother to stay away from people, to be afraid of them, but when they smell food in a picnic area at night and don’t see any people around, they might take a chance and wander in to look for food scraps.
When a bear gets food this way, it’s encouraged to take bigger and bigger chances. It’ll get bolder and will start to forage in the daytime and eventually things will escalate to the point that the bear is foraging in the daytime when people are around.” 
In short “A fed bear is a dead bear”…
There we go: we know now and won’t be able to use the “I did not know” excuse…
✩ Please take the time to consult The EwA Wildness Etiquette, which highlights the rules of conduct of the EwA nature lover and photographer, so that we enjoy all wildlife ethically and therefore protect it!
 Staying safe around Bears – Recommendations from the US National Park Service
 Tourists trying to take selfies with bears just ruined a Colorado park for everyone by Andrea Peterson. Washington Post (Sept 2015)
 Yellowstone Regrettably Kills Blaze, the Mother Bear Who Attacked an Off-Trail Hiker by Marc Bekoff. HuffPost Denver (2015)
 Bear in the Back Seat: Adventures of a Wildlife Ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Carolyn Jourdan, Kim DeLozier (2013)
 What is a problem bear? http://brownbearbg.info/en/bears-and-humans/what-is-a-problem-bear.html
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Special thanks to David Kulik (black bears), Joyce Ng (polar bear) and Lacey Higgins (brown bears) for providing their bear encountering stories and photographies used as illustrations in this article.
◊ Our tips are regularly revised and improved. This article was first published in April 2016 (latest revision: Jan 2018).