Hike in groups in bear country.
Keep food and trash away from bears.
Carry bear spray.
Those three rules are at the heart of a bear awareness program wildlife educators are making extra effort to spread this year from Yellowstone to the North Cascades.
The Big Horn Outdoor Adventure show under way at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center is the latest stop for the Bear Avoidance Training Unit, one of the tools in the effort sponsored by seven of the region’s state and federal wildlife-related agencies.
The trailer full of posters, videos and bear spray canisters takes no winter break.
“The education effort is non-ending,” said Chuck Bartlebaugh, of the Missoula-based Center for Wildlife Information. Bartlebaugh travels around bear country with his trailer whether the bears are in their dens or out.
“The campaign has to work against TV, movies and other fantasies that suggest to people that it’s OK to approach and feed wildlife.
“I believe that has been a factor in increasing wildlife conflicts. People create problems for other people or let themselves get into inappropriate situations with a false sense of security.”
Bartlebaugh works with grizzly bear managers, studies all the bear incident reports and even tests methods himself.
The reports clearly show that bears generally don’t want anything to do with humans, but food will lure them into trouble. Bear storage techniques and electric fencing are effective deterrents.
Bears may quickly attack one or two people to defend their young or a carcass, but in the case of a tight group of four or more people a bear is less likely to charge.
When all else fails, bear spray is the best tool for getting out of a bear encounter unscathed.
Bartlebaugh’s suffered the discomfort of unleashing bear spray into the wind. He’s watched how a bear behind an electric fence skirted a cloud of bear spray.
His job is to share the wealth of knowledge.
“We especially like to focus on group leaders, to teach them the importance of bear spray and how to use it so they can spread the word,” he said in Spokane at the Big Horn Show display.
Bear experts are taking a hard look at the investigation of the bear attack on a couple in Yellowstone National Park last summer resulting in the park’s first grizzly-caused fatality in 25 years.
Bartlebaugh clinically summarized analysis of the findings:
• “The hikers knew there were bears around and seemed to ignore the recommended precautions,” he said.
• “Instead of leaving the area immediately when they knew bears were around, there are indications they may have gotten closer.
• “When the bear saw them, they initially hid, causing more anxiety in the bear that knew something was amiss but didn’t know what.
• “They yelled in a panicky tone, which evokes chase responses in a bear. Best to talk is firm but calm voice.
• “The woman ran, which is a well-documented way to trigger pursuit from grizzlies and other predators. The bear wants the chase to stop, so it sprints to catch the fleeing threat and teach it a lesson with nips, bites and swats before it runs off. Best to back away slowly.”
• “Bears charge to protect their young or defend a carcass, but as they’re charging they’re gathering information about how they want that charge to end.
• “If those hikers had been backing off slowly and called out in a surer, calmer voice, the bear may have stopped and retreated. A bluff charge is a very common scenario.
• “If the bear keeps coming, drop to the ground face down. The man in Yellowstone fought back. That’s recommended against a black bear, but it’s not what you want to do to a grizzly bear. That excites the bear even more. In most cases, grizzly bears don’t set out to deliberately kill a person. They just want to stop the threat. The man fought back; the bear killed him.”
The bottom line: The couple likely could have avoided the bear encounter.
But once the encounter was made, “Bear spray may have helped the couple hold their ground and be more calm rather than run and yell,” Bartlebaugh said. “That alone may have stopped the confrontation.”
People who venture into bear country should plan ahead for the moment they need to use bear spray, Bartlebaugh says.
He teaches a procedure and technique that boils down to this:
• Carry bear spray in a holster readily accessible on a pack strap or belt.
• If bear spray must be deployed, use two hands and shoot a burst on the ground in front of the bear to form a cloud-like barrier that may deter the bear from advancing.
Firearms can be effective in a bear attack, but they also can wound and provoke a bear into a killing frenzy, Bartlebaugh said.
Making a fatal shot on a charging bear is very difficult even for an experienced shooter, according to a study of Alaska bear encounters.
Bear spray is much easier to aim and fire effectively, that study showed.
Still, people must understand how to do it, Bartlebaugh said.
“In tests to see how people would use bear spray, we gave cans to 50 people and had them aim and spray as though a bear were out in front of them. In almost every test, the force of the propellant pivoted the can in their hand so the spray was going into the air above the target.
“While they were shooting into the sky disabling birds and butterflies, a bear would go right under the cloud unaffected.
“That’s why we recommend that most people use both hands when using bear spray.
“The spray should be aimed down in front of the bear. When it hits the ground it billows up and creates a barrier most bears will not want to penetrate.
“If you wait too long and just spray into the bear’s face, it’s more likely to keep coming and make contact.”