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.
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.
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.
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.