Bear Encounters

Mike February 4, 2013 2

black bear

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! The bear thing. The big scary bear thing. The old saying about only having to be faster than the guy next to you doesn’t work for me anymore. I’m the slow one. The bear thing really gets me looking over my shoulder up here in the Rockies. So here is some information about bear encounters from documents and interviews. (sounds official . . .but it was easy, my daughter Kylie is a bear technician in Montana). I am not an expert, but have researched this a bit because I just like being prepared and my wife won’t let me just sit here and write stuff every day.
Four situations which are most likely to cause a bear to attack:
1. When a bear is surprised or startled.
2. When a person encounters a sow with cubs.
3. When a human gets too close to a bear’s food supply.
4. Predatory Bear (when the bear sees you as potential prey/food).
Number 1 and 3 may initiate defensive behavior in the bear. They tend to slightly move their head back and forth, possibly stand up, snap or chomp their jaws ( I know, scary right?) and also woof or huff. This may not be aggressive behavior; they may just be trying to figure out who you are and if you are a threat.

At this point start backing away, raise your hands if the bear is not too close (It’s like identifying you are human), talk to them like you would a dog and slowly back away. “Stay Fido. Sit Fido. I don’t taste good, Fido” (actually the tone you use with a dog) don’t laugh. .. Seriously, you should stay as calm as possible, don’t sound aggressive and back away, still facing them.

Here’s the advice I start panicking with because it sounds contradictory. ”don’t look them in the eye, but keep them in sight ”What?? Look but don’t LOOK???. . .ok, I asked Kylie and she says stare at their feet. Ok. That makes sense now. Can I whimper? No . .just back away until you can’t see them anymore or can observe them moving away.
Avoiding Bear encounters (you really don’t want to startle a bear)

second bear pic

Here is the biggy:  Be aware of your surroundings. .(this is just good advice)  I use it when walking in downtown Portland.  Keep your eyes open and be aware of potential danger. Look for activity (carcasses, ravens, magpies or both) or bear signs (tracks, turned over rocks / logs, scat, scratches on trees, bear hair)    also when in a dense area, keep your spray ready.  The holster seems like a good idea and you can put it on your belt, pack straps or hanging between the pack straps.

Multiple carries of holster

Make lots of noise . .talk to your friends, especially when walking through dense areas or in high noise areas like streams or high winds.  People used to recommend bells, but there is some evidence which indicates bears don’t recognize bells as “human” sound, but more of a “dinners here”. I love the old joke about bear scat being easy to recognize because it has bells in it.

Eliminate attractants.  It’s called a dirty camp, campfires and cooking too close to where you sleep, open food, clothes that smell of cooking smells, sweet smelling things.

bear spray

So let’s talk about bear spray a bit:

I know your big burly neighbor who carries a .454 Casull from Freedom arms (made in Wyoming) talks big, but there are way (yes, WAY) too many experts that say bear spray is a more effective deterrent.  Nothing is perfect but bear spray has a lot of data supporting the use of it.  First off, if you carry this on your belt with a quick release, you are more likely to get it out and hit something than a firearm.  If a bear is charging from 30 or 40 feet . .you have less than two seconds to aim and shoot at it.  This includes bear spray, but again, chances are better hitting when you can cover a larger area.  And if you can get the bear to go away, life continues for all of us. Yes, including the bear.  They didn’t invite you into their home.

Difference between a Black bear and a Grizzly bear.  (By the way, don’t capitalize the “b” in bear; experts say it is not really part of the name. Probably shouldn’t waste time explaining it to the bear.)

Experts and training materials often talk about the difference between a Black Bear and a Grizzly first.  I am thinking, seriously, if a big scary bear is running at me, well I’m going to have a hard time stopping to analyze the difference.  Montana says it is because the Grizzly is federally protected. .. I’ll remember that when I am trying to get my head out of his mouth!

Kylie the bear technician

Kylie the bear technician

Actually it is good to know! They can act differently.  From what I have learned, Black bears are more likely to be a bit more predatory than a Grizzly.  At that point, know that statistics aren’t perfect but knowing may make a difference.  So here’s the difference: The current recommendation in Montana is to fight a Black bear, and play dead for a Grizzly bear. (That would be if they attack you . . don’t pick a fight with a bear . . .I’m just sayin’) The reason is that Black bears are more aggressive and attack for longer periods, and check several times to make sure the threat is neutralized, and sometimes, just because. If you decide to play dead: Never drop your pack in an encounter or attack. One, it can serve as protection against injury. Two, you may teach the bear that humans drop packs which yield food.


As I said, this is not a definitive essay on bear encounters.  Good awareness and preparedness is the key.  Here are some great resources to dig deeper, here’s another good tip.  You can buy a practice canister from Counter Assault to practice with.  Not a bad idea.

training canister


Bear Spray lesson:  A lot of the information for this post came from this document – good stuff

Other resources:

Center For Wildlife:

Living With Grizzlies – Bear Spray vs. Bullets Which Offers Better Protection, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Fact Sheet #8,

Herrero, Stephen; Higgins, Andrew; Cardoze, James; Hajduk, Laura; Smith, Tom, Fatal attack by American Black Bear On People: 1900-2009, The Journal of Wildlife Management, volume 75, issue 3, April 2011.

Smith, Tom; Herrero, Stephen; Debruyn, Terry; Wilder, James, Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, The Journal of Wildlife Management, volume 72, issue 3, 2008.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks:

Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee:



  1. billraz February 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    such a funny read! and on the flip side, very informative.

    • Mike February 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm - Reply

      It was fun and interesting learning a bit more about bears . . .especially from my daughter

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