What to do if a bear attacks

Seeing wildlife in their natural habitat is a truly special experience and the majority of interactions with bears don’t involve any aggression on the bears part. In most cases, a bear will act curious, will completely ignore you, or will simply run away.

Actual attacks are surprisingly rare. But as trail runners, our speed puts us at an increased risk for sudden encounters with bears which can provoke a defensive reaction, and the large amount of time that many of us spend in the backcountry and particularly in grizzly habitat also puts us at an increased risk.

So in this post, I’ll discuss how we can avoid potentially dangerous conflicts with bears, how to tell the difference between black bears and grizzlies, a subspecies of the brown bear, and what to do in the rare case of an attack. Most of what I’ll be recommending is based on advice from Parks Canada as well as the authoritative book by Stephen Herrero which I’d highly recommend reading for yourself.

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How to Tell Black Bears vs Grizzly Bears

Black bears are much more widely distributed throughout North America than grizzlies, with populations spread across Canada, the United States, and as far south as Florida and Mexico. Grizzlies are mainly found in Western Canada, Alaska, and in very small parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

There are very few brown bears left in Europe and Asia, and those that do exist have evolved over thousands of years to be smaller less aggressive and excellent at avoiding people.

Black bears are not always black and grizzly bears are not always brown. Both species can be any shade of white to brown to black. Black colored grizzly bears are fairly rare but are frequent enough that you should never assume a bear is a black bear simply because it’s black in color, if you’re in an area where both black bears and grizzly bears are known to live. Instead, you’ll want to rely on other physical characteristics.

Grizzly bears have a pronounced hump between their shoulders which black bears lack. Black bears can appear to have a similar hump when they drop their heads down to graze which can be confusing when trying to identify the species of bear from afar but it should be obvious once the bear lifts its head.

Grizzlies have what can be described as a more concave or dish-shaped profile between their eyes to the end of their nose, while black bears have a straighter and much more convex facial profile.

When Bears Come Out of Hibernation

Bears emerge from their winter dens between March to May, having lost between 15% to over 40% of their body weight. But food can be sparse throughout the spring and studies have shown that bears may continue to lose weight in many regions until the berries begin to ripen in summer or fall.

Bears are most likely to be found near their food sources, so avoiding or at least being extra vigilant when passing through these areas can help you avoid conflicts with bears.

What Bears Eat

Spring and summer foods can include grasses flowers and other vegetation in early stages of growth. Bears lack the ability to digest cellulose because, like us, they have a simple digestive system instead of the multi-chambered stomachs found in sheep and moose, so they can’t digest plants in later stages of growth. Plants grow more rapidly at higher elevations and have higher concentrations of protein, so bears prefer to feed at higher elevations in the summer.

Here in Western Canada, early green-up sites can include south-facing avalanche slopes where heavy snowfall exists. Snow will melt early in these areas due to the southern exposure and slope angle, and plant growth begins early at these sites since they receive more of the sun’s energy. Bears here will also feed on the shoots of perennial shrubs like devil’s club and salmonberry which can grow over a meter in the spring.

Later in the season, as other areas begin to dry up, bears will be attracted to meadows with lots of moisture which tend to attract hikers and campers as well. So be extra vigilant when running through these, as well as on slopes that may have accumulated a deep snowpack and a prolonged melt.

Insects can also form an important part of a bear’s diet which they’ll find amongst dead fall from fires or blow down from storms. So be cautious when moving through these areas as well where visibility can also be limited, particularly in the summer. But berries and tree nuts are the primary food where available that bears rely upon to fatten themselves up on before denning.

Bears will actually spend the majority of their time feeding on berries or resting nearby when they’re available in abundance. Both species of bears are known to forage for food either during the day or at night depending on if they’re trying to avoid people when in more populated areas.

When not eating or traveling and particularly during the hottest time of the day bears will lie in beds of cool dense vegetation. Staying on well-established trails should help you avoid surprising a bear while it’s resting.

Bears tend to follow the path of least resistance which can include game trails, stream beds, ridges, shorelines, and of course man-made trails and roads. But when trying to avoid people, both species will tend to stick to areas like dense shrubs, forests, and swamps.

Black bears prefer to forage in, or very near to, the forest to take advantage of the cover that it provides, and where they can climb a tree to escape danger. Whereas, grizzly bears have adapted to eat foods found in open environments, as well as much further from the forest’s edge. In fact, herein lies a potential evolutionary explanation for the different levels of aggression found in the two species. Young black bear cubs can very easily climb trees when threatened and their mothers along with them. While grizzly bear mothers are required to defend their cubs from predators on the ground.

How to Avoid Sudden Encounters with Bears

There are 10 times as many black bears in North America as there are grizzlies and over 90% of reported injuries from black bear attacks have been relatively minor. While both species can be dangerous under the right circumstances, more than half of injuries from grizzly bear attacks are major ones. But these two are very rare.

To put this into perspective, Glacier National Park, Montana has more grizzly bear inflicted deaths than any other national park, yet more people die there from falls, drownings, and hypothermia than from bear attacks. So statistically speaking, your biggest risk may be in driving to the trailhead. But the risk is great enough that I always carry deterrents like bear spray and a small air horn when running in grizzly country, and there are some very simple things that you can do to avoid conflicts with bears in the first place.

The best way to avoid a sudden and accidental run-in with the bear along the trail is to simply make a lot of noise. -Hey bear! Bears generally want nothing to do with us, so giving them as much notice as possible of your presence allows them to move away from the area.

While small air horns can be used, bear bells are largely considered ineffective. They’re not only very quiet, but higher frequency sounds don’t carry nearly as well in dense vegetation as lower frequency sounds. So instead, use your voice to speak, yell or even sing when visibility is limited and particularly near streams or if it’s especially windy.

Traveling in tight groups can also reduce the risk. This is mainly due to the fact that we tend to just make more noise the larger the group and larger groups may also prevent bears from attacking if confronted.

Try to keep your activities predictable to bears. This means sticking to regularly used trails and running only during the day. Of course, as trail runners we often find ourselves exploring off established trails and even running throughout the night. This means we need to be extra cautious when doing so by making even more noise.

Just keep in mind that sticking to established trails alone is not a guarantee that you won’t run into a bear. In Yellowstone National Park, for example, grizzlies are apparently known to travel on hiking trails themselves at night, but presumably they’re doing this when they least expect to run into humans who normally only hike during the day.

If you happen to stumble upon a large dead animal on the trail, leave the area immediately and if in a park, report it to the ranger if possible. Both black bears and grizzly bears are scavengers and suddenly stumbling upon a carcass claimed by a bear can lead to extremely dangerous encounters.

You should never wear headphones or earbuds when running in bear habitat. Be alert at all times and pay attention to any noises ahead or off the side of the trail. And if you’re running with a dog, keep it on a leash when in grizzly country. Dogs are known to provoke defensive behaviors and a bear could chase your dog right back to you.

How to Handle Encounters with Bears

So what should you do if you encounter a bear? Like us, bears are very much individuals who can act very differently depending on the animal and the circumstances, but there are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind.

If you see a bear at a distance and it hasn’t yet seen you, the safest thing is to quietly retreat and detour. There’s no sense in trying to alert the bear to your presence, as there have been incidences of grizzly bear attacks from great distances, even when the bear shouldn’t have felt startled or threatened, and a bear may choose to approach you even just out of curiosity.

This should be obvious, but never harass or approach a bear in the wild, especially not for a photo.

If you do suddenly come across a bear at close distance, stop and remain calm. Get ready to use your bear spray. It’s important not to shout at a bear or to make loud noises that could be seen as aggressive. Speak calmly and slowly to let the bear know that you’re human and not a prey animal. Try to avoid making direct eye contact and never run as that could trigger a chase response.

Bears will sometimes stand on their hind legs when confronted, not as an act of aggression, but just to better see and smell you. It may even bluff charge or circle you for the same reason, to get a better whiff of you. Like a dog, a bear’s nose is their window to the world, and it’s believed that their eyesight is actually quite poor. And once it realizes that you’re in fact human, it may only then turn and flee.

Once the bear stops advancing, start to back away slowly. If the bear continues coming close, stand your ground and use your bear spray. In cases of sudden encounters with black bears, their behavior can be very different from that of grizzlies.

Black bears will frequently charge towards a person while swatting the ground and making loud noises but will rarely attack. It’s not to say that attacks don’t occur by black bears, but they are very rare compared to grizzlies, and in many cases have been successfully fought off.

I’ve run into black bears countless times while on the trails and in most cases I’ve just barely been able to catch a glimpse of their hind sides as they run off into the bush as fast as they can. This is why I feel so comfortable spending so much time in black bear habitat without the need for carrying bear spray and other deterrents as I would without question any time I’m in grizzly habitat. But this is a personal choice, and there’s certainly no harm in carrying bear spray at all times as long as you keep it handy and know how to use it.

Black bears are powerful animals and should not be treated casually, but if you were to become one of the unlucky few to be attacked by a black bear, your best bet seems to be to fight back. But telling the species apart can be difficult with any certainty, especially in a sudden encounter with the bear.

Most of the grizzly bear attacks that do occur are from bears protecting their young or protecting a carcass, and it’s generally only when surprised that a bear instinctively will go immediately into defensive mode. This is why you’ll often hear the recommendation of playing dead if attacked by a grizzly bear. As soon as the bear feels that it has neutralized the threat, it’s likely to leave you alone, but you should not play dead unless a charging grizzly is extremely close and you’re certain that attack is imminent.

This is where the recommendations get a little murky and some of the literature is conflicting, but as a general rule of thumb, my understanding is this: In the case of a defensive attack, when in doubt, you should play dead. Lie in your stomach with your hands behind your neck and your legs spread apart. This makes it harder for the bear to flip you onto your back while protecting your neck and head.

Defensive attacks generally last less than two minutes, but if the attack continues, it may have shifted from a defensive attack to a predatory one, in which case you should fight back.

Predatory attacks on the other hand, meaning bears treating humans as prey by stalking and hunting them, are extremely rare, but they do happen. Bears who have been habituated to eating garbage and food left in campsites may eventually begin to prey on campers during the night. This is why it’s so important to practice proper bear safety when camping, not only for your own safety but also for that of other campers and the bears themselves.

You should always familiarize yourself with the types of wildlife you can expect in any area and whether there’s been any recent sightings or aggressive behavior. Notices can often be found at trailheads as well as on the park’s website.

Something I plan on doing more often especially in grizzly habitat is to talk over with my group and maybe even rehearse in advance of starting our run what we’ll do in the case of a sudden encounter with the bear. But cases of bears hunting people during the day while out on the trails are extremely rare. It’s safe to say that otherwise there would just be a lot more reported incidences of attacks, considering how much time people regularly spend in grizzly habitat.

Further Reading

  1. Pamphlet from Parks Canada
  2. ‘Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance’ by Stephen Herrero