Bear Encounters

Human-wildlife encounters are increasing. This is mostly due to inappropriate human interaction with wildlife. Compounding this problem is that many television shows, books, magazines, and advertisements promote getting up close and personal with wildlife, especially bears. This gives the public incorrect information about responsible behavior around wildlife and just how unpredictable wildlife can be - even when they seem passive or friendly.

For Both People and Wildlife

Confrontations with bears and cougars are very rare. In recent years, attacks by bears and wildlife are most commonly the direct result of people approaching the animals for photographs, hiking off trails in dense brush, or feeding them. You can minimize the possibility of a confrontation by following one basic rule: Never approach, feed or follow wild animals, especially bears.

Many wildland visitors mistakenly believe that there are specific gestures and warning signals wild animals make that will give people time to retreat to safety. Wildlife - including bears, deer, elk, bison, coyotes, wolves, big horn sheep, mountain goats, foxes, alligators, squirrels, and raccoons - are individualistic and unpredictable. Animals that ignore you, look calm, or appear friendly may suddenly and without warning charge or strike out.

Many wildlife professionals recommend remaining a minimum distance of 100 yards away from bears and at least 25 yards away from other large wild animals such as bison, moose, elk and deer. A safe distance should also be maintained from small animals such as squirrels, mice, and racoons. Always follow local wildlife management guidelines - read trailhead signs - and let others know where you are going and when you plan to return.

  • Human injury often occurs when an animal responds to a perceived threat with instinctive "fight or flight behavior." People get injured simply because they are too close or in the animal's way. A car horn, barking dog, or excited child can trigger an animal into fight or flight behavior.

  • Both females and males of most species are equally dangerous. Although animals may look or act tame, they are wild and may quickly and unpredictably change to aggressive behavior. If an animal approaches you, it is your responsibility to move away to maintain a safe distance.

  • Wild animals that are approached may: run into traffic and get hit by vehicles; lose footing on cliffs and fall; become separated from their young or be forced to abandon their nests or dens; become more vulnerable to predators because they are distracted by people or acquire a human scent; and when fed they will abandon their natural food sources for human foods thereby reducing their chances for survival.

  • Animals will eat anything with an odor including aluminum foil, plastic, food wrappings, even glass with food odors. These can severely damage an animal's digestive system and may even cause death. Human food and garbage may also facilitate tooth decay, ulcers, malformation of horns, arthritis, or cause the spread of distemper in wild animals and undulant fever in people. Always properly dispose of food waste in animal/bear resistant garbage containers.


Give animals plenty of space when they are near or crossing a road. If a deer or other animal runs in front of your vehicle, watch for others to follow. Do not entice animals to your car with food or throw food at them - this encourages them to frequent the road area, resulting in potentially fatal vehicle-animal accidents.

Observe or photograph animals, especially bears and bison, from inside your car - do not drive close to the animals. All large animals can cause serious damage to your vehicle, and bears are smart enough to open your door. It is always best to park in established turnouts, not on the road, and to use spotting scopes and telephoto lenses. Most importantly, be sure you do not block the animals' intended path or get between an animal and her babies.


If you encounter fresh bear signs such as tracks, scat, diggings, claw marks on trees, or rolled over rocks and logs, unholster your bear spray and be on alert.

If you do notice a bear, remove the safety clip from your bear spray and attempt to detour as far away as possible. Monitor the bear's behavior. If the bear is close to the trail and you cannot bypass it or return the way you came, wait for the bear to leave the trail area before continuing your hike.

If the bear is approaching you, identify yourself as human by allowing the bear to see and hear you. Speak in a monotone, non-threatening voice. The bear should divert its direction and avoid you. If the bear does not change its direction, step off the trail as a group, giving the bear room to pass by.

If the bear continues to follow you and approach, spray a short burst of bear spray at the bear. Sometimes the whooshing sound of the spray and the forming cloud is enough to deter the bear. If the bear still continues to approach you or charges, spray downward at the front of the bear and yell No! Stop! Go Away! By doing this you are letting the bear know you are taking a stand and will fight. Bears respond to body language and sounds.


Bears - You may encounter a bear that is surprised and agitated, but not charging. It may run side-to-side, run at you and retreat, run towards you again, bluff charge and kick dirt on you, etc. Have your bear spray ready and cautiously back away while monitoring the bear's reaction.

The bear may continue to approach and threaten you. If so, spray a short burst of bear spray slightly downward toward the bear and continue monitoring its reaction. The bear should stop and retreat, however, you need to be prepared for a possible full charge.

  • Bears that are agitated may appear to be non-threatening or passive at first.
  • Bears that are agitated may snap or pop their jaws and make a woofing sound.
  • Do not run. This may incite a predatory chase response.

If the bear charges from a distance of about 60 feet, direct your bear spray downward to a point 30 feet in front of you toward the charging bear and spray. If the bear is closer, direct your bear spray downward toward the front of the bear and continue spraying until it diverts its charge.

Cougars - Even at a distance a brief glimpse should be cause for alarm. Though the cougar is most likely to leave the area, you should group together and travel with great caution. Do not run! Have your bear spray out and be prepared to use it. If there are repeated sightings, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself and others. Start by yelling and throwing rocks, sticks, etc. When the cougar is at any distance within 60 feet away and threatening, immediately emit a deterring blast of bear spray. If the cougar continues to approach or charge, spray downward toward the front of the cougar and continue spraying until the cougar diverts its approach. Be alert and on guard for the remainder of your hike.


Bears - Unfortunately, a bear charging from close range may reach you before it is distracted by the sound of the bear spray and expanding cloud, or, it may not have had enough time to feel the inflammatory and irritating effects of the bear spray. Because of the bear's momentum it may not divert its charge until after it has made contact. Fortunately, research has shown that bear spray usually reduces the length and severity of an attack.

As quickly as you can, unholster your bear spray, remove the safety clip, and spray at the bear if possible. If contact is inevitable, drop face down to the ground, clasp your hands around the back of your neck - while still holding the bear spray - and continue spraying the area you are in, upwards toward the bear if possible. If you just can't get to your bear spray, play dead the best you can. If you get an opportunity to unholster your bear spray, take it. If the bear rolls you over, continue rolling until you are face down again. This provides the best protection of your vital organs.

If you are with other people, they should spontaneously spray both you and the bear. They should also be prepared for the bear to stop and divert its charge to the person spraying. Continue spraying directly at the bear. In most cases when people have gone to the defense of someone taken down by a bear the bear does not charge through the spray cloud to reach the second person.

Once the bear retreats, quietly stay on guard until you are sure the bear has left the area. Please note that asthmatics may require special care afterwards.

Cougars - All close encounters with a cougar should be considered confrontational and predatory. Do not panic - do not run! Sudden movements may instinctively cause the cougar to charge you. Remove your bear spray and the safety clip and be prepared to spray spontaneously if the cougar moves in your direction. Group together, and assess the situation. Try to back away slowly and cautiously. Monitor the animal's response and adjust your actions accordingly. Be prepared to fight back aggressively using your bear spray and everything else available to you.


Confrontations are usually the result of a sudden encounter with a bear protecting its space, cubs or food caches. In defensive confrontations, the bear is attacking you because it feels threatened. Get your bear spray out as quickly as possible, remove the safety clip, and spray downward in front of the bear. Continue spraying until the bear breaks the charge.

If contact is made, or about to be made by a defensive bear, drop to the ground and play dead. Lay on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. Continue spraying the bear spray if you can, it will make the area you are in less desirable to the bear. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. Remain still and try not to struggle or scream. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.

Sometimes bears will act in a predatory manner. They may follow you, circle around you, or stalk. Do not panic - do not run! Sudden movements may instinctively cause the bear to charge you. Take your bear spray out and remove the safety clip while grouping together. Assess the situation. Try to back away slowly and cautiously, retreating to a place of safety. Monitor the animal's response and adjust your actions accordingly. Be prepared to physically fight back aggressively. Start by yelling and throwing rocks, sticks, etc. Emit a deterring blast of bear spray when the bear is within 60 feet from you. If the bear continues to approach or charge, spray downward at the front of the bear and continue spraying until the bear diverts its charge.

Any bear that attacks you in your tent or confronts you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat. You need to use your bear spray and fight back aggressively with any means you have.

Always review the latest information on what to do in an encounter or attack by contacting the wildlife and land management agency where you are recreating. Bear behavior varies from species to species and as a result of their individual experiences. There is no one assured protective action to take during an encounter or attack. Polar bear avoidance requires special training and equipment. Always travel with an experienced guide.

6) Other Wildlife

  • Startled bears will often confront intruders by turning sideways to appear larger, make woofing and teeth-clacking sounds, salivate, lay their ears back, and slap the ground with their paws. These are warnings for you to leave the area.

  • Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. A startled black bear and sometimes grizzly bears will send their cubs up a tree while she stands guard at the bottom. This gives you an opportunity to leave without a confrontation. Mother grizzly bears try to avoid people, but if you surprise one, she might bluff charge as a warning, or charge and make contact to remove the threat.

  • If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not being aggressive. It is trying to see, hear, and smell you better in order to identify what you are. Talk firmly and in a low-pitched monotone voice while cautiously backing away.

  • Cougars (also called mountain lions, panthers, and pumas) are secretive and elusive. They can jump 30 feet from a standstill and 20 feet up a cliffside. They mark their territory by urinating on scratch piles usually made of grass, dirt, pine needles, and leaves. They often hide behind bushes, logs, or rock outcroppings, and usually leave an area when they hear people approaching. If you repeatedly sight a cougar, or it appears to be following you, it is acting in a predatory manner. You need to be aggressive - get your bear spray out and be prepared to use it, group together and yell, throw rocks and sticks, etc. If that doesn't work be prepared to physically fight back. Never run from a cougar as this may cause it to instinctively chase you, and do not turn your back to one.

  • Moose, elk and deer may charge and attack humans who approach them. They are often mistakenly believed to be tame. They have killed people by rearing up and striking with their front hooves or goring with their antlers.

  • Bison (also called buffalo) weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run up to 35 miles per hour. Bison have short tempers, and will also vigorously protect their young and personal space. They may look tame while standing or grazing quietly, but they frequently charge humans and vehicles without warning. Bison will stomp, use their horns or massive body weight to gore or otherwise injure what they consider to be a threat, sometimes resulting in death.

  • Coyotes, foxes, and racoons are not tame even though they may approach people. When they do approach people, this may be an indication of being sick or carrying rabies. They are mostly active at night.

  • Mountain goats and bighorn sheep usually live in high-elevation areas with cliffs and rocky outcrops. Bighorn sheep have curled horns with sharp points and mountain goats have slightly curved sharp horns. Both have butted, kicked, and gored people who approached them. They also may become aggressive towards people after being fed.

  • Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and marmots have plenty to eat and should not be fed peanuts or other foods. All four may bite and scratch people who try to feed them, leaving you vulnerable to infection. They may have rabies or the hantavirus; and they carry ticks that can cause Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

  • Spiders, scorpions, and ticks can crawl into your shoes, bedding, or clothing. Shake out and inspect clothes and bedding before getting into them. They hide in or under rocks, bushy areas and firewood. Watch where you put your hands and feet. They may not be felt at first, check yourself and children frequently and closely at night for ticks and bites.

  • Snakes are very seldom seen. They can sense our vibrations from walking and look for a place to hide, which is often behind rocks, logs, or in thick brush. They are not usually aggressive unless they feel threatened, either deliberately or by accident. To prevent being bitten, avoid stepping directly in front of or behind logs and rocks - step on top and away. Before sitting down or picking up supplies from the ground, look around the area carefully. Watch where you put your hands and feet. Enjoy snakes from a distance; do not tease or try to handle them. Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before striking.

  • During extreme conditions such as droughts, thunderstorms and forest fires, all wildlife, especially bears and cougars, may become more aggressive and confrontational.

  • Children and Wildlife: Wildlife, unlike zoo, farm, and captive animals, pose special dangers to children. Explain to children the differences between domestic and wild animals and why it is important not to approach, touch, or feed wildlife. For their own safety, children should always be within close reach and sight of guardians. They should avoid playing in or near dense cover; and refrain from squealing or making other animal-like noises while hiking or playing. Most importantly, children need to be warned, and reminded, not to approach wildlife, especially baby animals. Never allow them to pet, feed, or pose for a photo with wildlife - even if the animal appears tame. By teaching children how to respect the wild in wildlife, you will create a wildlife legacy that lasts long into the future.