Bear talk offers advice, tips, safety information

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

How you react during an encounter with a bear often can affect the outcome, according to Larry Lewis.

"Different situations warrant different behaviors, and it's important to remember that what a bear learns in one encounter, will influence the next," said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife technician.

"Many people feel there is a simple formula that can be followed, such as if a bear does 'A,' I can do 'B' and this will result in 'C'."

However, it's just not that simple, he added.

"Bears exhibit predictable behavior, but only to a point," Lewis said.

The Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club invited Lewis to speak at their monthly meeting last week.

His presentation included a video on bear behavior and staying safe while in bear country and was followed up by an open discussion with the group of more than 50 people in attendance.

Lewis began the lecture by asking for a show of hands as to how many people had seen a wild bear on the Kenai Peninsula.

With populations believed to be roughly 300 for brown bears and 3,000 black bears, it wasn't surprising that nearly everyone in the room raised their hand.

He explained that the predictable behavior of many bears can be beneficial to people coming into contact with them, but just like with people, some bears are more aggressive than others.

Lewis said a lot of time it's all relative to a bear's personal space. This personal space "bubble" may be small for bears that have been habituated to the presence of humans, but it can be very large for some animals, such as females with cubs. Bears should always be given a wide berth, regardless.

"Bears, like humans and other animals, have a personal space around them that they may defend. The size of this personal space is different for every bear and situation," Lewis said, but he added that once the space is violated, the results are usually the same.

"Once a bear's personal space has been entered, they'll typically either run away or be aggressive."

Lewis used this theory to explain how some attacks are the result of bears being surprised by humans, such as on a blind corner of a hiking trail.

"Bears may not always be aware of what's going on around them," Lewis said. "A big bear may have its head down looking for food or be following a trail and not looking ahead. Once the bear realizes a person is there, it's often too late -- the person is already in the bear's personal space."

This type of surprise to a bear can result in a defensive attack. Bears, particularly mothers with cubs, may bite and claw a person defensively, only ceasing when they feel the threat has been eliminated.

"In this situation, the best thing to do is fall to the ground on your stomach and protect your face and neck," Lewis said. "If the bear rolls you over, try to get back into this position. Keep as still and quiet as possible until the bear stops and leaves the area."

This brought some chatter to the group that had been listening silently until then. They seemed to acknowledge that although lying still and silent may be the best strategy in a defensive attack, doing so is likely easier said than done.

The other type of attack Lewis talked about was that by a predatory bear.

"In a predatory attack, the bear is trying to kill you. Fight back with anything and everything you can," he said.

Attacks, whether defensive or predatory, can happen for numerous reasons, but occur only a small portion of the time that bears and humans interact.

Every situation is different, he said. Determining when to stand your ground, make noise and stamp your feet and when to keep calm, quiet and give a bear room often can be the difference between a bear moving off or attacking.

Lewis said the best prevention is education. Learning as much as possible about bear behavior and bear safety can lead to making the right choices during an interaction with a bear.

In an attempt to keep the public educated on bears, Fish and Game distributes a free handbook called "Living in Harmony with Bears," a comprehensive and informative guide about bears and bear safety. The bear safety video shown by Lewis also can be obtained from Fish and Game.

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