Last week a Forest Service law enforcement officer, Flathead native, and longtime recreator in bear country was killed by a bear near West Glacier. According to rumor, and the local paper, the bear was probably a Grizzly, and the gentleman collided with the bear while going quite fast down a gentle, tightly forested descent on his mountain bike. The bear reacted out of surprise and fear, and the injuries were quickly fatal.
Grizzly sow and cub, center right, a comfortable 3/4 mile away. M photo.
There is a longstanding and vigorous campaign around here, and in the Yellowstone area, to be “bear aware.” As presented in the handouts you’ll get in national parks, the signs you’ll see on forest service land, on the posters you’ll see in local stores, being bear aware means carrying bear spray, hiking in groups, storing ones food wisely, sleeping away from said food storage, and being careful when hiking near food sources or in noisy areas. As a matter of public policy it is important to have a soundbite-friendly version of this to which neophytes are likely to pay attention, but I cringe 50 times a summer when I see folks sauntering around with spray clipped to their packs, out of reach and available for accidental triggering. Spray certainly deters attacks, and for every such attack surely gives 100 hikers the poise necessary to not panic during a close encounter. Incidental, indoor discharge is also responsible for the temporary evacuation of a building or two every summer, and while its effects aren’t deadly, bear spray is nonetheless a potent weapon carried around with a carelessness unacceptable in any other context.
Frankly, while it is unrealistic to expect the millions of tourists who roll through the Crown Ecosystem to undertake sufficient research to form their own opinions of what being prudent in bear country entails, anyone who spends a lot of time in the bear woods without plenty of research is doing themselves a disservice.
Living here, and being in those woods on a daily basis, one is almost obligated to become inured to the hazard. This past Saturday, on a routine 2 hour hike with Little Bear, on a trail I’ve biked in the past, we came upon a black bear off in the bushes at 30 yards. Another black bear was right behind it. I watched them, for less time than I would have had I been without a child in a backpack, and then yelled a little to scare them off. And they complied by disappearing in the opposite direction. Bears probably aren’t common in this area, Grizzlies especially, but it is 10 minutes from home, and 300 yards from a group of houses. Bears don’t easily live among us, but they live far closer far more often than most people imagine. Grizzlies included. Certain activities, like mountain biking, are no doubt more probable than others to produce a bad encounter, but more time spent out there increases the likelihood of running across the wrong bear, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time. When it happens, as it did last week, neither bear nor human may be doing anything miscreant and incorrect.
Sow griz and two cubs, at a comfortable 1.5 miles. I later saw them at a less comfy 120 yards.
So the first thing for proper bear awareness is the admission that bears kill humans, and not always when they are a sow with cubs or protecting a kill. The probability is low, but it is possible that while you are out in the woods a bear might kill you through no fault of your own.
Next, admit that certain activities are less safe than others. Anything high velocity, quiet, off trail, in the fall during hyperphagia, and in a group of less than four increases the probability of a bad injurious or fatal encounter. Read Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and all the great data kept by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and decide for yourself, but in my mind the evidence here in overwhelming. That said, at least 50% of the time I am personally out in Grizzly country I’m doing at least two of these things at once, and not infrequently all of them simultaneously.
I’ve reconciled myself with that because my reading of the research tells me that the most significant factor in keeping bear encounters from turning wrong is not doing anything stupid. Be aware of the area you’re moving through, read the situation when you do encounter a bear, and act with cold rationality. Most of the time all this entails is not getting any closer, acting confident but non-threatening, and allowing the bear to figure out what you are. My closest sustained encounter with a Griz was during the 2012 Bob Open, hiking through Pretty Prairie around dusk. I was on high alert, because dusk is good time for bears, especially in the long days of spring, and that area is a good place for spring bears, with big south facing meadows and lots of deer and elk. True to expectation, I came upon a bear as I emerged into meadow. It took a good minute or more doing a quarter circle of me at 30 yards, standing to better look and smell several times, before winding me and running off, quickly. I did nothing but stand still, made possible by not panicking, as I was on bear alert. It’s worth noting that these days I would probably not hike so late into the night, alone, in that particular place at that particular time of year. Bears can be almost anywhere at the most unlikely time, but fear evenly applied across settings sucks focus from when it can be best put to use.
Beyond this, bring spray if you want to. It has a good track record, so long as it isn’t too windy or raining hard. I still find the fragility of the nozzle disconcerting, and believe that 80% of folks who carry spray are putting themselves at net greater risk, due to the frequency of accidental discharge (spray on shoulder strap, alder pulls trigger, spray in face, blind hike out). Also bring a firearms if you want to, provided you’ve trained the hell out of it. Plenty of incidents in Alaska where a good shot saved someone from a good mauling. That said, 75% of the rafters I saw on the South Fork of the Flathead in early August two years ago had 3-5 pound revolvers in chest rigs, and I’m very skeptical that many would have been able to shoot them well enough to do any good under duress.
Griz print in the Almost-a-Dog chimney, Norris Traverse. Bears go where they want, often in very improbably places.
In summary, being bear aware is mostly about being self-aware, though having a decent knowledge of what bears do at different times is also important. A good nights sleep in bear country shouldn’t be the result of ignorance, or even worse, a bunch of Tylenol PM. It should be earned, over time, and while that doesn’t help the policy makers much, concerned as they must be with greatest good for greatest number, proper knowledge built on a body of experience is nonetheless the only way to really get there. No shortcuts.