When spending time in bear country we can expect to enjoy rich and diverse wilderness, from alpine peaks, to floral meadows or fragrant forests. As an umbrella species the presence of healthy grizzly bears indicates that there is a diversity and quality to the surrounding wilderness that can be appreciated by all.
When talking about grizzlies we often find that the topic of guns comes up. While there is no legal hunting in the threatened populations of southwest BC, the greatest loss of bears is through them being shot. These shootings are either due to illegal poaching or instances of real or perceived human-bear conflict. So how can we reduce the likelihood of human-bear conflict when in bear country? Well, we can adopt habits that will keep us safe, such as:
- Travel in groups. Hiking the backcountry alone is rarely a good idea but in bear country hike with a friend or group, it's more fun this way too!
- Be alert and mindful of your surroundings. Ensure you have clear lines of sight and avoid coming around blind corners or onto open meadows without first assessing the situation.
- Make noise to alert bears to your presence. Most bears are keen to stay away from humans and disturbance.
- Manage attractants. Bears have a great sense of smell so when camping ensure food is stored out of reach, in bear proof containers or hung in trees. When hiking keep food sealed and be mindful not to leave food waste, fruit cores, litter, etc behind because bears that find those scraps will build an association between people and food.
- If you do come across a grizzly bear, remain non-threatening, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Get you bear spray at the ready.
- In an encounter bears may exhibit a number of behaviours such as:
- Maintaining a watchful eye - the bear sees you but does not feel threatened, at this point you can plan for route alterations that will move you away from the bear;
- Standing up on their hind legs - which can be to assert dominance or simply to get a better view;
- Huffing and clicking - which is a warning but does not necessarily lead to an attack;
- Charging - bears will frequently bluff charge as a warning. In a full charge situation ensure you remain close to each other and have your bear spray ready.
Research has proven that bear spray is more effective than guns at preventing bear attacks. It also has the added advantage of being non-lethal for the bears, a situation which many backcountry users would prefer. If you get one take-away from reading this we hope it is the importance of bear spray. Buy it, practice with it, keep it on you (i.e don't put it on your pack and then leave it across the campsite) and keep it accessible (on a belt or pack strap not in a jacket pocket, etc).
For more on safe hiking in bear country check out this video: