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Bear Safety and You: 3 Tips from an Expert

I interview the founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign.

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 with perhaps the top expert in bear safety and bear/human interactions in North America, Chuck Bartlebaugh. He is the founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign.

Bear Safety Tips from Be Bear Aware

Be Bear Aware director sharing bear safety tips
Chuck Bartlebaugh, founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign.

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.

Bear Safety Tip #1: Carry the Right Bear Spray

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 a brand of bear spray available that’s called “Counter Assault.” He says 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 40 feet – something to keep in mind considering bears can move at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.

counter assault bear spray
Counter Assault Bear Spray

On the Be Bear Aware website, it explains that there are a wide variety of bear sprays that just aren’t effective enough. Some spray for too short a time or too short a distance.

It recommends you carry a bear spray that sprays for at least seven seconds and shoots 30 or more feet. That way, you can spray a charging bear within 60 feet so the bear will ideally meet the bear spray cloud at 30 feet away.

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…

Bear Safety Tip #2: Stay Quiet and Back Away

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. Many people have misguidedly been told the opposite or seen people screaming and jumping at bears on TV. This is another example of what Chuck meant when he said don’t believe everything you see or read.

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.

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Bear Safety Tip #3: Don’t Trust a Bear’s Disinterested Behavior

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, explaining that there’s never a situation that a bear doesn’t monitor you as a threat.

Chuck says that even as close as 100 feet is pushing it, putting pressure on the bear. Bears don’t like pressure, and one bear’s pressure point may be much more sensitive than the next. So, basically, stay away!

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. Most people are aware of the danger grizzly bears present but too many people underestimate black bears.

“They both tend to be very aggressive,” Chuck says. Black bears may be smaller (not always!) but they are still plenty big enough to do you serious harm or even kill you.

None of this is meant to scare you, but we all must respect that bears are wild creatures that are well equipped to defend themselves. They may easily interpret you as a threat even if you don’t think so.

So, don’t be scared but do be prepared. Be prepared with bear spray and know what to do if you encounter a bear.

More Bear Safety Tips

We have another great article on Careful Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know. I suggest you pop over to that article to learn even more bear safety tips, including regarding pets and food.

You can also Safely Watch Bears via Live Streaming.

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