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Fear Is Not Your Friend When It Comes To Bears

Fish & Wildlife

Fri Jul 29 08:45:00 MDT 2011

Grant Bronk and his wife wife Susan Mattson are shwon here with Chaco, the desert dirt dog.

Grant Bronk and Wife

Many of us love to hear a scary bear story told around the campfire on a starry night. Vicarious fear can be fun sometimes, but it isn't any help if you carry it over into a real encounter with a bear.

Grant Bronk, in FWP's field services office in Helena, with a degree in ecology specializing in river systems, agrees.
Bronk is outdoors a lot.

"I've encountered my share of bears in the outdoors before—but only one grizzly bear encounter really shook me up," he said.

Returning from a mountain bike trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead trail he surprised a grizzly bear head-on. He went over on his bike, with his legs caught in the toe clips, trapping him to his bike. While he struggled to get up, one of his dogs took on the job of confronting the bear with barks from behind surrounding trees and deadfall.

"I was terrified, on the ground and trapped to my bike with a grizzly bear coming on, but in the end I was prepared and that is what got me out of the situation," Bronk said. "Let's just say that bear spray works, but it hurts like hell if you get a good bit of it on your own bare skin."

"I still cherish the presence of griz in our woods, and today I can honestly say I look forward to seeing my next bear," Bronk said.

Bronk did some things wrong—he surprised the bear by moving quickly through the woods without making sufficient noise, and he got himself into a physically compromised situation and lost control of his dog—things that could be expected to rile a bear and cause it to defend itself.

But, he also did some important things right—he carried bear spray, he didn't make direct eye contact with the bear but talked calmly to it while backing away, and he used bear spray effectively to diffuse the situation. In the end, Bronk successfully repelled a grizzly bear with no harm to bear, man or dog. It happens, but these are not the bear encounters that make the news.

The news makers tend to be bear encounters that usually include—a surprise encounter, an unlikely occurrence, a novice's basic error, the experienced outdoorsman's oversight—mixed with a liberal burst of fear and little preparation.

Sometimes facts can help defeat fear, so here are a couple that might help.

Statistics suggest domestic animals are to be feared more than wild ones. In the U.S. alone, dogs are responsible for about 30 human deaths a year and horses for about 20. Human fatalities from bear attacks average three per year in North America.

Between 2005 and 2009 nearly 10 million people visited Glacier National Park. The park reports that grizzly bears injured three visitors in that period—none of whom used bear spray.

For the most part, if you are in Montana you're in bear country. The people who fare best always prepare to see a bear. They:

  • check with the locals about bear sightings and avoid areas where bears were recently seen;
  • research what, if any, food storage orders are in effect where they plan to recreate and follow them to the letter;
  • carry and know how to use bear spray, and
  • learn the proper ways to share space with bears—black or grizzly.

Even surprise bear encounters and unexplained attacks have been survived. For more on Being Bear Aware got to Always prepare to see a bear—but leave fear home—it won't help in bear country.

Be Prepared To Encounter A Bear

Human behavior is half of the equation when it comes to experiencing a positive wildlife encounter. Here are some human behaviors that help lay the ground work for a safe outing.

  • Inquire about recent bear activity in the area.
  • Carry and know how to use bear pepper spray for emergencies.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
  • Travel in groups of three or more people whenever possible and plan to be out in the daylight hours.
  • Stay on trails or rural roads.
  • Watch for signs of bears such as bear scat, diggings, torn-up logs and turned over rocks, and partly consumed animal carcasses.
  • Keep children close.
  • Make your presence known by talking, singing, or using other means to make noise, especially when near streams or in thick forest where visibility is low. This can be the key to avoiding encounters. Most bears will avoid humans when they know humans are present.
  • Use caution in areas like berry patches where bears occur.
  • Don't approach a bear; respect their space and move off.


  • Camp away from trails and areas where you see grizzly signs.
  • Keep a clean camp at all times. Keep tents and sleeping bags free of odors.
  • Avoid cooking smelly foods.
  • Hang all food, trash and other odorous items well away from camp and at least 10' above ground and 4' from any vertical support, or store in a bear-proof container. Livestock feed should be treated the same as human food.
  • Don't sleep in the same clothes you wore while cooking or eating.


  • If you kill a game animal, immediately field dress the animal and move the carcass at least 100 yards from the gut pile. Gut piles can be easily slid onto a small piece of visqueen plastic for wrapping and proper disposal.
  • If you must leave the carcass, hang it, in pieces if necessary, at least 10' above the ground. Leave the carcass where you can see it from a distance, and when you return, observe the carcass with binoculars before approaching. If a grizzly has claimed the carcass, leave the area and report the incident to the proper authorities.
  • Elk hunters should be aware that bugles and cow calls can attract bears. Stay alert! Many encounters between hunters and bears occur in dense brush.


  • Don't leave fish entrails on shorelines of lakes and streams. If you don't properly dispose of entrails they could attract a bear and create a dangerous situation for anyone in the area.