As we enter early fall, the forests are calling, but it’s very important to be bear aware this time of year because both black bears and grizzly bears are very active, fattening up for the winter ahead.
We have only had 14 reported bear attacks and one fatality in Washington State, but with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimating a population of 20,000 to 25,000 black bears and grizzly bears gaining a foothold in the northeastern part of the state, bear attacks are a possibility.
So, what’s an outdoors enthusiast to do if they want to stay safe in bear country? The big word to remember is “Deterrence.” Here’s a few tips from several western fish and wildlife experts and agencies that may prove helpful in that regard:
MAKE SOME NOISE: Travel in groups, talk to each other, and even clap from time to time. Bears generally don’t want to be near humans and, if they hear you coming, will usually retreat before you even see them. As for those bear bells you see sold in gift shops? The jury is still out on whether those work or not, though there are a few funny jokes about those jingly little bells being more of an attractant than deterrent when found in bear scat.
LISTEN: It’s an old Army patrol trick that works well in bear country. Stop every few hundred yards, be quiet, and listen. Bears can be noisy foraging for food, and you may hear one or more of them some distance away if you do this, allowing you to avoid a bear encounter. In a similar vein, don’t have those ear buds in bee-bopping to music as you shuffle down the trail. You may never hear that bear that’s just a few yards away if you do.
KNOW WHERE THE BEARS WILL BE: At this time of year, both black bears and grizzly bears are focused on getting as many calories into their bodies as possible. That’s why bears will gravitate towards berry patches (especially huckleberry patches), stream beds where spawning fish are present, or towards dead animals the bears may (or may not have) killed. Be hyper-aware of bears if you are in any of these areas.
CARCASS REMOVAL: Sometimes that dead animal is one you killed, especially if you are a deer or elk hunter. Bears have a keen sense of smell and will be attracted to that carcass sooner than later. If you have the ability to pack that animal out the same day you kill it, do so, and if you are with someone else, make sure they are standing guard while you field dress and quarter that animal. If you have to leave parts of the animal overnight, hang them from a tree where bears can’t get at them, and be very cautious of bears when you come back the next day to pack that remaining meat out.
BEAR SPRAY AND FIREARMS: Bear spray is an essential, non-lethal tool to have in bear country whether you are a hiker, hunter, bicyclist, or berry picker. A 2008 study by Dr. Tom Smith at Brigham Young University and several colleagues found bear spray was 92 percent effective in deterring bear attacks from brown, black, and polar bears in Alaska between 1985 and 2006. The same study also found 98 percent of people who carried bear spray that got into close encounters with bears came away uninjured.
Having bear spray is one thing, but knowing how to use it and keeping it readily accessible are the two keys to success. The same goes for firearms. They work too, but they are a lethal means of stopping a bear attack, and if you don’t have the right caliber of ammunition and perfect shot placement, you might not have the stopping power to prevent a mauling during a bear attack.
Having said all of this, don’t let the fear of a bear attack keep you from our forests this fall. Just walk into them educated and prepared, and you’ll likely have a wonderful time without any negative encounters with bears.