It’s a common theme we see in the news and as Jennifer and I travel North America in our RV – people are getting just too darn close to wildlife.
Believe it or not, that includes bears.
That’s why I thought it imperative to bring you details from an interview I did recently with perhaps the top expert in bear safety and bear/human interactions in North America, Chuck Bartlebaugh, founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign.
Chuck has vast experience with bears – including being attacked a handful of times – and how to avoid conflict. You can hear the entire interview on Episode 113 of our RV Podcast, or read the rest of this post for pertinent excerpts.
Chuck has researched human-wildlife conflicts extensively and studied why an increasing number of people attempt to approach and interact with wild animals. He's worked with national parks, universities, bear biologists and wildlife research agencies for decades. He has traveled extensively photographing and observing human-wildlife interactions in national parks, forests and refuges in the lower 48 states, Canada, and Alaska.
His first tip?
“You’ve got to be really careful with what you see on the Internet and what you read – especially about bears and bear spray,” he said.
To be sure, Chuck says bear spray is the best choice for stopping a charging, attacking, or threatening bear. He notes that there is currently only one brand of bear spray available that’s called “Counter Assault.” Chuck also said it works on all types of bears and that “it’s effective on any animal that breathes deeply and has eyes, and lungs, and nose.”
He said it works because it’s powerful and able to shoot 25-30 feet – something to keep in mind considering bears can move at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.
If hiking in a group, every person should have their own can.
“It will shut down 80-90 percent of the bear’s ability to monitor you,” Chuck says, pointing out that the spray makes the bear choke and gag, among other things, for as long as 45 minutes.
But the spray is a last resort.
When possible, Chuck says the best course of action is to assess a situation, speak quietly if necessary, and slowly back away. By no means, should you ever act aggressive (or yell, or scream, or whistle, or make any other kind of noise), he says.
I shared with Chuck an experience Jennifer and I had at Glacier National Park where a mother black bear and cub crossed our path when hiking. We did exactly what Chuck suggests.
“You’ve got to kind of ignore what you see on TV and know that distance equals safety…and maintaining that distance is crucial,” he said.
Another common mistake is thinking that when a bear turns its back, it doesn’t care or mind that you are in close proximity.
“They’re misreading the bear…there is never a situation like that,” he says.
Chuck says that even as close as 100 feet is pushing it, putting pressure on the bear.
There are other signs to look for, too: swaying head gestures; clacking teeth; “woofing” sounds; stomping the ground; fur standing up on back; and ears laying back.
Also, it doesn’t matter what kind of bear – the rules and warning signs are the same, be it dealing with black or grizzly bears.
“They both tend to be very aggressive,” Chuck says.