You’ve probably seen it by now: the video that recently went viral from Yellowstone National Park, documenting a mother black bear with three cubs trying to cross a bridge and sending the tourists scattering.
Although the incident received some conflicting media reports about whether the tourists did the right thing, it brings up an important question: What would you do if you find yourself in a potential encounter with a bear (and perhaps cubs), with limited options for a safe exit?
Indeed, exploring the outdoors, especially in bear country, takes a little know-how to stay safe. As summer heats up and more people hit the great outdoors, consider these tips on staying safe in grizzly country.
1. Always carry bear spray (and know how to use it).
It's not cheap (from $15 all the way to $50 per bottle), but your life and the life of the bear are well worth the cost. Make sure you get EPA-approved bear spray, not pepper spray for personal defense. If this is the first canister you've purchased, spend the extra money to get a waist or chest holster. Don’t waste your money on buying bear spray if you’re planning on carrying it in your backpack. Bears can run at 35 mph, which means that 500-pound dynamo of teeth and claws could be on you before your surprised brain even registers, “Bear!”
2. Travel in a group and stay on the trail.
Groups of hikers tend to make noise, and noise alerts bears to your presence, giving them time to move off. Problems arise when you startle a bear and it responds defensively, especially a sow with cubs or a bear feeding on a carcass. Andy Pils, a wildlife biologist with the Shoshone National Forest, says groups of three or four are ideal for staying safe in bear country: “The more people, the more intimidating you are to the bear.” Plus, everyone should be carrying bear spray.
Bears are crepuscular animals, meaning they’re more active at dawn and dusk. While hiking, stay on the main trail and don’t go off bushwhacking. According to Dusty Lasseter, Community Bear Coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, bears will often make day beds in heavy, dark timber away from main trails. So, Lasseter says, "if you stay on the trail you have less chance of stumbling upon a sleeping grizzly."
3. Give bears plenty of room.
In the viral video of the bears on the bridge, the problem was the obstacle of the bridge itself. Neither the observers nor the bear family had any place to go. This video by Yellowstone rangers provides some good insight into the situation, as well as some good tips on what onlookers should do in a similar situation. Here's a quick rundown of what to keep in mind.
Don’t put yourself in the position where neither you nor the animal(s) has an escape route. Stay close to your car if it’s available, or keep good distance between you and a bear, on the trail and elsewhere (in Yellowstone, that's 100 yards for black and grizzly bears). If you surprise a grizzly on the trail, Lasseter advises not to make eye contact, as it could be perceived by the bear as a challenging behavior. Back away slowly while talking in a soft monotone. Loud noises and lots of commotion by one or two people could also be threatening.
4. Use common sense.
Although they may resemble the stuffed animals you had when you were four, bears will actively defend themselves, their cubs, or a food source if they feel threatened. Park and Forest Service regulations require visitors to maintain a 100-yard distance from any bear. How far is 100 yards? That’s about the length of a high school football field, minus the end zones. Now that’s a pretty long distance, but in Yellowstone it’s easy to get closer to bears than this simply because they often forage close to the road. But just because you can get closer, doesn’t mean you should.
That black bear mother on the bridge? She wasn’t charging the tourists. She was trying to keep her cubs together and get off the bridge to safety. Any parent who’s tried to corral more than a couple of kids in a crowded situation knows that same, stressed-out feeling.
According to Pils and Lasseter, being alert in bear country is the most important thing to remember. Pay attention to your surroundings and look for scat, tracks, or turned over rocks or logs. Make some noise while hiking. In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth 500 pounds of cure when it comes to bear safety.