Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dealing With Close-up Bear Encounters

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Bear hunting is a special brand of outdoor adventure where, in rare circumstances, the hunted can become the hunter. It’s when the tables are turned on a sportsman, and things can get very interesting very quickly.

It doesn’t happen often with black bears, but when one attacks, it’s never good news. A grizzly will maul and bite a human, often inflicting horrible injuries, but the person often lives.

Black bear, even though they are the most common of all, are perhaps the most dangerous of all bruins. Their attack may continue until the human is dead. It’s happened many times across North America, and in many cases, the human doesn’t survive such encounters.

I lay no claim to being a black bear expert, but have hunted bruins, photographed them, and have had these animals approach to within three feet of me over 40 years. Each experience is something to learn from, and one hopes it never happens again.

I’ve never been truly frightened of a black bear, even when they’ve come within spitting distance on a dead run. Knowing some things about bears can help people cope with the animal if things turn sour, and an angry bear is only feet away. What you do may truly affect the outcome of the encounter. The majority of such encounters happen during the summer months when boars are breeding sows or when a sow is moving during daylight hours with her cubs.

Once while photographing a black bear in Canada’s Northwest Territories I was downwind of a foraging bruin. It turned, looked in my direction, and I took a photo with a flash attachment. It startled the animal, and it came walking slowly toward me.

I talked to the animal in a fairly soft voice. I kept my voice level, and it approached close enough that I could have reached out and touched it, which I knew would have been a serious mistake. The animal continued to circle, and as it moved around me, I turned with it and continued to face and talk to it. The bear got downwind of me, caught my scent, and circled back on the same path as before and slowly walked away.

One important thing in bear encounters is to keep a clear head. Don’t scream at the animal, and realize that a wild bear can sense anxiety just like a mean dog senses fear in a human. Watch the animal, and read the messages it gives you.

Know this: bears, and especially a sow with cubs, will often make a false charge toward a person. They can walk, trot or run, but you’ll hear teeth clacking, deep growling, and then the bear stops at 15 to 20 feet.

It is defending its turf and its cubs, and a slow dignified retreat while facing the animal can usually put an end to the whole business.

The trick is to stand your ground until she stops. Step backwards slowly for a step or two, and talk softly to the bear. If it does nothing, take two or three more slow steps backwards. This allows the animal some space, and allows it to save face. Its enemy is retreating to avoid what could be a deadly confrontation. Just don’t make any quick movements, and pay attention to your footing. If you fall down, it could trigger an attack that would be difficult to defend against.

Watch the bear. Keep a level head, and don’t crowd the animal. If it comes toward you, turn with it as it moves, but watch its head because the body will follow the head. Study its actions intensely. A bear that becomes increasing agitated has gone from being a curious to a deadly animal.

A bear that approaches within 15 to 20 feet and stops, its ears laid back against its skull, clacking its teeth and growling, is a dangerous animal. A bear that does that, and begins stomping its front feet against the ground, has become truly dangerous. Back up and try to defuse the situation with a slow retreat.

Do not run. Never, ever, run from a bear because it’s like running from a mean dog: the chances are it will trigger a charge. Black bears can outrun a horse for 50 yards. A human can’t run that fast. Running triggers aggressive behavior.

A full-blown charge with foot stomping, growls, ears laid back, and clacking teeth is something that will stir your guts into liquid, and give your mouth a coppery taste. This is no time to lose your head and do something incredibly stupid. The key here is to keep you wits about you.

Continue to face the animal but try a slow-movement retreat. Chances are the bear doesn’t want to force the issue, but this posturing can be a prelude to a mauling and death or just a close call. In many cases, the humans movements or lack of them may act as a catalyst that triggers an attack.

Saving face is no different with a bear than with a barroom bully. Sometimes the issue can be resolved without incident; other times, it can only be resolved with force. A man alone, unarmed, is not capable of fighting a faster and stronger bear. A few instances have been noted of a bear-man fight, including one here in Michigan years ago, and they are the stuff of wild tales ... except many of them are true.

Few people will ever face a false charge, and even fewer will come to grips with a full-blown charge. Those who face the latter (and it’s difficult to determine one from the other until an attack occurs) and live to tell the story are a rare breed in today’s society.

I’ve faced four (two from the same bruin), and all were defused after several troubling minutes, but the best advice is to stand tall, make yourself look as big as possible, talk (don’t scream) to the animal, and give the bear a chance to save face without injury to it or you.

Backing away or stepping aside when a bruin is very close can leave you with a wildly beating heart, a dry mouth and your life, providing you do everything right. The chance of a bear attack anywhere is remote, but it pays to have some knowledge of what to do well before such a need is within 10 feet of you and still coming..

Posted by Dave Richey on 05/29 at 05:42 PM
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