I'm vacationing in the Rockies this year; can you give me some bear watching safety tips?

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Answered by: Alison, An Expert in the Animals and Wildlife - General Category
These days, almost everyone wants to ‘get back to nature’. As a consequence, eco-tourism has never been more popular and people just can’t wait to enjoy that close encounter with a wild creature in its natural habitat. Many choose to go ‘off piste’ and venture out into the wilderness on camping trips and this, combined with a shortage of natural food in some areas, has led to an increase in clashes between human beings and dangerous wild animals, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The most common culprits for such attacks are bears. Recently a hiker was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear as he photographed it eating berries in a popular national park in Alaska. But what do you do if you are the victim of a bear attack? Well, it’s best not to get close enough to be in danger, but if the worst should happen, here are a few bear watching safety tips.

Brown bears

Brown bears are more commonly known as Grizzly bears. You’ll come across them right across much of Eurasia and northwestern North America, Alaska, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. Grizzlies are very large, brown in colour and have distinctive hump on their backs. If you’re heading off hiking in brown bear territory, keep these tips in mind.

     Carry bear spray: Keep the spray in a front pocket or holster where it’s within easy reach.

     Make noise: Bears are naturally shy and don’t like being sneaked up on; attach bear bells to your rucksack, talk loudly or even sing so that a bear knows you’re coming and can get away. If you see a bear that hasn’t seen you; move away quickly and do not disturb it.

     Don’t tease: Waste food is an absolute bear magnet and can be sniffed out even through tied up bags. Keep your rubbish to a minimum and dispose of it carefully.

      Do not run! If you meet a grizzly, keep calm, slowly reach for your bear spray and stand tall. Don’t panic if the bear stands upright; this is usually just a sign of curiosity. Back away very slowly, ready to spray. If you’re followed, stand your ground.

If the bear attacks, the most effective distance to spray a charging bear from is about 40 feet. Your aim is to create a pepper spray barrier between you and the bear. If the bear keeps coming, hit the deck and lace your fingers across the back of your neck to protect it. Protect your stomach by adopting the foetal position and tuck your knees under your chin.

Reassuringly, the bear is just trying to neutralise you as a threat – not eat you! Lie completely still and play dead. The bear will probably just make off but remain immobile for at least 20 minutes to make sure the coast is clear.

Black bears

Black bears are North America’s most common bear. They are not generally aggressive and prefer to flee than fight. Black bears are also found in Asia and these are more likely to attack humans, largely because of declining habitat and loss of natural food sources.

Be bear aware

If you’re walking in bear country, take the same precautions as you would for Grizzly encounters; carry bear spray, pack away rubbish and make plenty of noise.

Black bears are not as aggressive as Grizzlies so the best tactic if you encounter one is to stand your ground. Make yourself as loud and large as you can; wave your arms, shout and use sticks to make yourself look even larger. Don’t run away or climb a tree to escape; black bears are fast and excellent climbers. Stand your ground and be ready to use your spray if the bear gets too close.

If the bear does attack you, do whatever you need to do to frighten it off. Use a stick or anything else that comes to hand to fend it off. Aim for the bear’s nose and other sensitive areas if things get physical. Never run away.

In conclusion

It’s undoubtedly wonderful to see wild animals in their natural habitat, but always remember that you are the visitor there; treat the inhabitants with respect and maintain a safe distance if possible; take heed of these tried and tested bear watching safety tips and stay safe!

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