A grizzly bear is probably the scariest thing you can imagine encountering when you're hiking or camping in the woods. Respect your fear -- a grizzly attack would likely kill you or leave you severely maimed or scarred.
The most famous recent grizzly attack was probably the attack on Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear activist who spent time living among the bears in Alaska. In October 2006, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were fatally attacked by one of the bears they'd come to love, documented in the Warner Herzog film "Grizzly Man."
Grizzly attack stories date back through the ages. As the story goes, in 1823, fur trapper Hugh Glass was on an expedition up the Missouri River, headed toward Yellowstone Park. Separated from his group, Glass accidentally surprised a mother grizzly and her cubs, and before he had a chance to grab his gun, the grizzly attacked him. Legend has it, he'd wrestled the bear to the ground by the time his men showed up to shoot the bear. But his injuries were so great that, after bandaging his wounds and sitting vigil for a few days, his men took his rifle and knife and left him there in a shallow grave. Glass actually survived to tell the tale, setting his own broken leg and wearing the grizzly bear pelt for warmth as he hiked for two months. A monument still stands at the site where Glass fought the grizzly.
The stories of Timothy Treadwell and Hugh Glass seem almost unbelievable. But grizzly bear attacks can and do happen to people just like you and me.
Although there are no formal statistics on bear attacks, collected news reports show at least 24 fatal attacks during the current decade in the United States and Canada [source: Black Bear Heaven]. In Alaska, there were eight non-fatal bear attacks in the first eight months of 2008 [source: Vick].
An encounter with a grizzly doesn't always have to end in bloodshed -- that's your blood or the bear's. By using safe hiking and camping practices, learning to read a bear's body language, staying calm and protecting yourself, you can greatly increase the odds you'll walk away from a grizzly in one piece.
About the Grizzly Bear
When you're camping or hiking, the two bears you're most likely to encounter are black bears and grizzly bears. It's important to know the distinction, since each type reacts differently to the presence of a human. For example, black bears tend to be more tolerant of people and live near human settlements. They're also generally less aggressive than grizzly bears.
Look for visual cues to tell the difference. Black bears may be black, but also brown, blue-black or even cinnamon-colored. Grizzlies also range in color, but primarily are brown. (Note: All grizzly bears are part of the species of brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears.) The hair on a grizzly's back and shoulders often has white tips, lending it a "grizzled" appearance. A grizzly has more of a shoulder hump, and a more concave face profile. A black bear has no shoulder hump and its facial profile is flatter (some describe it as having a "more Roman nose" than a grizzly). A black bear has short (1.5 inch, or 3.8 cm), dark claws, while a grizzly's are very long (2 to 5 inches, or 5 to 12.7 cm) and light in color. Grizzlies also tend to be bigger than black bears. Male grizzlies weigh around 500 pounds (226 kg), but some top out at 800 (362 kg). Black bears average 300 to 400 pounds (136 to 181 kg). Grizzlies stand around 3.5 feet (106.6 cm) at the shoulder and can stand up to 6.5 feet (198 cm). Black bears stand up to about 5 feet (152 cm). Oh, and don't ever try to outrun a grizzly -- they can reach 30 mph (48 kph).
There are about 200,000 grizzly bears worldwide. Although plentiful in locales like Russia, until recently grizzly bears were in danger of extinction in the United States. Today, the IUCN List of Threatened Species lists them as "Least Concern." However, the grizzly population is still under threat in isolated areas due to their low numbers. There are more grizzlies in Alaska and Canada than the continental United States, where only about 1,000 grizzlies remain.
Grizzly bears prefer mountain forest, tundra and coastal habitats. They're often found feeding at salmon breeding areas. They're omnivores and will eat just about anything -- plants, insects, fish, dead animals, hoofed animals and occasionally livestock. Around November or December, bears go into a dormancy period in their dens. But they don't go into complete hibernation and will occasionally emerge to forage for food.
Grizzlies are much more aggressive than black bears, due to evolution. Because of their long claws and shoulder hump, grizzlies can't easily climb trees to escape a threat (black bears can and do climb trees). Instead, grizzlies stand their ground. Mother grizzlies are particularly aggressive. Experts believe this aggression is linked to the fact that grizzlies tend to produce only six to eight cubs in a lifetime, compared to black bears that rear 12 or 13 cubs. Additionally, black bear cubs only remain with their mother for about a year, while a grizzly's cubs won't cut the apron strings for up to three years.
Brown bears have an extremely keen sense of smell and can detect odors up to a mile away! Experts believe a bear's hearing and eyesight are equivalent to a person's. What happens when you and a grizzly meet?
Encountering a Grizzly Bear
You can cut your chances of ever encountering a bear if you pay attention to your surroundings. When you're hiking or camping, check with park officials about any bear sightings or activity. Bears like to frequent stream beds, berry patches and dense edge cover (the border of grass, weeds and shrubs along the forest line). If your vision on the trail is limited -- for example when you are rounding a blind curve -- sing or talk loudly to scare off any lurking bears. Don't let your dog run without a leash -- it could lead a bear right back to you. Look out for bear tracks or fresh bear scat on hiking trails. Any scat that is more than two inches in diameter probably is bear scat. Beware of any animal carcasses. Grizzlies are attracted to fresh kills and will hang around for days to protect their food source. Obviously, if you see a bear cub, the mother is not far behind. If you see any of these things, leave the area and report your findings to park officials.
Grizzly bears are typically active at dawn, dusk and during the night, but it's possible to encounter one at any time. If you can interpret a grizzly's body language, it will help you determine its intentions and how you should react. Bears primarily are solitary animals and they'll typically ignore humans unless they're surprised or they feel threatened. Grizzlies rarely seek out humans for attack, unless they're hungry and predatory -- in which case, yes, they'll likely attempt to kill and eat you. But most of the time, a grizzly just wants to remove a threat. A bear standing on its hind legs is not necessarily going to charge you; it's usually just trying to get a better look and smell. When a bear is agitated and upset, it will do any number of things -- put its ears back, lower its head, swing its head from side to side, paw at the ground, make woofing or growling noises or simply charge without warning. If a bear looks you directly in the eye with its ears back, it's definitely feeling threatened, and you should take this as a serious warning. If it begins to "pop" its jaw, it's getting ready to charge. It could "bluff" charge you to gauge your reaction, or it could knock you right down. Either way, never try to outrun a bear that's charging you -- it can reach speeds of up to 30 mph (48 kph). And even though grizzlies aren't the best climbers, they can reach up to 10 feet (304 cm) into a tree and have been known to scramble up after prey.
Why would a bear attack you in the first place? The most common reason is that you've met with a protective mother bear and her cubs. Other reasons? Surprising or startling a bear or getting too close to a bear's food. Or, the bear may simply be hungry and predatory. Just like Yogi Bear, a grizzly's main drive in life is to acquire food -- except a grizzly won't show up wearing a tie and politely nick your picnic basket. When you're camping and hiking, be extremely careful with food smells. Don't cook close to camp and be sure to store all your food in odor-proof containers, at least 14 feet (4.2 meters) up a tree and 4 feet (1.2 meters) away from the trunk.
Some bears will actually stalk you. Usually they're young male bears who have not yet learned the dangers of interacting with humans. In this case, you'll have to defend yourself aggressively. What do you do when a bear attacks?
If You Are Attacked by a Grizzly
If a bear is moving toward you aggressively, what do you do? Most importantly, keep your composure and don't make any sudden moves. Avoid making direct eye contact with the bear -- it's a sign of aggression. Instead, show the bear you're being submissive by backing away slowly and speaking to it in a calm, monotone voice. This helps the bear identify you as human and not a threat.
Doing just that may be enough to allow you or the bear to leave the area safely. Sometimes, however, you may not be so lucky. If a bear continues to advance toward you, it's time to use your bear spray. Never travel into bear country without bear spray, which is a canister of pepper spray -- much like mace -- designed to repel and frighten bears. Use bear spray only as a last resort. You don't want to take a chance that you'll miss and simply agitate the bear more. And, you might be wondering whether you should use your gun, if you've got one. Guns versus bears isn't recommended, and not just because most national parks ban the use of firearms. According to a study by bear biologist Thomas Smith, bear spray halted aggressive bear behavior a whopping 92 percent of the time. Guns, on the other hand, were successful only 67 percent of the time. Bear spray casts a cloud of gas that swirls the bear's head, confusing and blinding it -- giving you precious time to escape. On the other hand, you'd need to fire a gun with pinpoint accuracy, which isn't easy to do if a gigantic grizzly bear is charging you. And, you'd probably need to get off multiple shots to do it in.
Most experts advise that once a bear makes contact with you, you should fight back as hard as you can. But this tactic works better with black bears than with grizzlies, as black bears are more timid. You can greatly reduce your chances of grievous injury from a grizzly if you play dead. Most grizzlies defensively attack, so it's important to show the bear you're no longer a threat. Don't play dead until the last possible moment -- you don't want to blow any chance of getting out of the way. If you're wearing a backpack, keep it on. Lie on your side in the fetal position, bring your knees to your chest and bury your head in your legs. Alternatively, lie on your stomach with your backpack on, covering the back of your neck with your hands. If the grizzly still won't stop attacking, you may have to fight back. Use any available weapon -- a rock, your fist, a hunting knife -- and try to aim for the bear's head, eyes or nostrils.
There are some documented cases of grizzlies coming into camping tents. These bears were usually hungry or overly aggressive. You should always sleep in tents big enough to stack your gear between you and the tent wall, for protection. A bear that enters your tent sees you as prey -- so don't play dead. Fight back, using your bear spray and anything else you've got. Make noise, shine your flashlight in its eyes, do anything you can. When a grizzly enters your tent, it's definitely a worst-case scenario.
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