When visiting some of the North America National Parks, it is very common to wonder how frequent bear attacks are in Canada and the United States, how to avoid them and how to behave if an encounter or attack happens.
I admit that I was a bit scared about this when planning our Canadian Rockies road trip because our plan was camping and hiking in the middle of nature.
However, the stats say that only 2 to 5 people die every year by bear attacks in Canada and the United States. It is much more likely that you die because of an illness or a traffic accident instead of mauled by a bear.
Still, if you are traveling to the West Coast of Canada or to the United States National Parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone or Alaska, I recommend that you inform yourself on how to avoid bear encounters and how you should act during a bear attack.
It is important to learn the following:
HOW TO tell the difference between A BLACK BEAR and A GRIZZLY BEAR
There are three types of bears in North America. Polar bears, brown bears, and black bears. Polar bears are only found in some areas of Alaska and Canada.
In this article, we will focus on the species of bears that you will be most likely to see: grizzly bears and black bears. Their behaviors are quite different so the first thing you have to do is to learn how to tell the difference between them as soon as you see them.
The Grizzly bear is a brown bear variant that lives in North America. It is considered the most aggressive bear in the world, even comparing it with the rest of the brown bears.
The black bear or American black bear is the most abundant bear species on the planet. Although at first, they might look harmless, you should know that in some situations they could attack and be dangerous.
WHERE WE CAN FIND GRIZZLY BEARS AND BLACK BEARS
We can find grizzly bears in Canada (in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Alberta) and in the United States (in Alaska, Montana, and Northwest Wyoming).
The habitat of the black bear is more extensive. We can find them across Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
In Canada, it is found in all the territories while in the United States in 39 of the 50 states, both on the Atlantic coast and on the Pacific coast.
Size is not a physical characteristic that must be used to differentiate black bears from grizzly bears.
- In general, the female grizzly weighs about 400 lbs and the males 780 lbs, although there have been cases of grizzly bears that weigh over 1300 lbs. A grizzly bear standing on its legs can reach 94 inches although the average would be 78 inches.
- The black bear females can weigh about 220 lbs while the male bears about 660 lbs, although black bears of up to 880 lbs have also been found. A black bear can be as tall as 82 inches high at most when standing up.
Color is not a physical characteristic that must be used to differentiate black bears from grizzly bears.
- Grizzly bears usually have a grizzly fur, but can range from copper brown, cinnamon or gray to dark chocolate brown.
- Black bears are usually black, but it is also very common to see a black bear with brown or even cinnamon fur.
This is the main physical characteristic to tell the difference between grizzly bears and black bears. The grizzly has a marked hump on the shoulders. The hump is made up of muscle mass that empowers the front legs of the bear and helps to dig deeper and quicker.
This other feature will help you distinguish black bears from grizzly bears. The ears of the grizzly bear are small and rounded, while those of the black bear are elongated and pointed.
If we look at the face of the grizzly bear from the side we will see that the upper part of the snout does not follow a straight line but curves upwards. Let’s say that the grizzly bear has a pointed nose. On the other hand, the snout of the black bear seen sideways follows a straight line.
The claws of the grizzly bear are much longer than those of the black bear. Their nails can measure 2 to 4 inches, while those of the black bear are very curved, black and measure a maximum of 2 inches.
BEHAVIOR AND DIET
Both grizzly and black bears hibernate during the winter. Therefore, since they leave their den until they return to enter the period of hibernation, they are almost exclusively dedicated to eat.
They spend eating all day long to get all the nutrients and fat to survive until next spring.
Grizzlies are known to be the most aggressive bears in the world. Their diet is omnivorous based 90% on vegetables and the rest on fish and meat. They hunt large deer, moose or even black bears.
However, they do not consider the human being as part of their diet. They tend to shy away from contact with people. If a grizzly bear attacks a human, it is either because they are taken by surprise or very rarely because they are stressed or hungry and can not find any food.
Unfortunately, this case is happening more and more because the habitat of the grizzly bear is being destroyed by human action. A well-known came after the bears that devoured the ecologist Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, while they were filming a documentary about grizzly bears in Alaska.
Black bears are also omnivores, feeding mainly on vegetables but with a consumption of meat and fish that takes 10% of their diet. However, they are not great hunters, but rather opportunists. They feed on insects, carrion, crabs, honeycombs and everything they find easily.
Among the food sources that they can find easily (and should not) are the dumpsters found near their habitats. Unfortunately, black bears are becoming used to humans, no longer fearing them. Following this, tricky situations happen when they go to urban centers in search of food.
We find these types of attacks especially in parks like Yosemite where measures to prevent bears from having access to human food have come too late.
HOW TO AVOID A BEAR ENCOUNTER IN CANADA AND THE UNITED STATES
Although we all like to watch wildlife when we travel, there are certain cases when it is preferable to avoid encounters with wild animals.
Especially when the animal is considered dangerous and we do not have any element of protection such as being inside a car, an electric fence or if the animal is in a short distance (in the case of bears 320 ft is considered the necessary safety distance).
When we are in nature, follow these tips to avoid a bear encounter that could trigger an attack:
- When you hike, make noise. Let the bears know about your position before they can see you. Sing, speak loudly, clap your hands … The bear bells, although they are very popular, are not useful.
- Walk in a group of four or more people. Never leave children or pets out of sight.
- Don’t hike at night or with low visibility. Bears are more active at night.
- Keep in mind that if you run or ride a bicycle in bear country, you are more likely to be attacked. Most of the bear attacks are caused when the bear is startled, which happens if you suddenly pass with the bicycle or running close to its path.
- If you see recent signs of wildlife (excrement, split trunks, holes or tracks) and you think they are fresh, leave the area.
- If you find a large dead animal (deer, elk, bear, etc.) leave the area immediately. The predator (possibly a bear) might be nearby.
- Store your food properly. Try to reduce the food you are carrying as much as possible if you are trekking. Just take a snack if it is essential. If bears have an outstanding sense, that is the smell.
HOW TO BEHAVE DURING A BEAR ENCOUNTER
If you are traveling to a place inhabited by bears, always take a bear spray with you. The first thing you have to do before an encounter is to keep calm and prepare to use the bear spray if needed.
Watch carefully. Does the bear know of your presence?
→ If not, get away immediately without making any noise that may get its attention or startle it.
→ If he has seen you, in most cases, the bear will be the first interested in leaving the area. In some cases, it is possible that it pretends to charge turning at the last second. It may also growl, snap its teeth and move its ears back in a sign of threat. At that time try to follow the next steps:
- Do not lose your calm. Screaming or sudden movements can trigger an attack.
- Speak to the bear. Let him know that you are human and not a prey. If the bear stands up on its hind legs and sniffs the air it is to identify what kind of animal you are.
- Go backward slowly. Never run or turn your back on it.
- Make yourself look bigger than you are. Go as straight as you can and if you have any object put it on your head.
- If you are in a group, do not separate. There are no registered bears attacks to groups of more than 4 people.
- Do not take off your backpack. You can use it as protection if the encounter ends in an attack.
DEFENSIVE ATTACK vs PREDATORY ATTACK
Unfortunately, sometimes even following the steps above an attack may take place. In order to survive a bear attack, we must find out first what kind of attack it is because our behavior would be totally different.
Defensive attacks are the most common types of attack. They happen when a black bear or a grizzly bear is taken by surprise
Many times these attacks happen when a bear is taken by surprise while taking care of the cubs or when a bear is feeding. The bear can see you as a threat. Before this attack, the bear can seem nervous and he may growl.
Predatory attacks are very rare. Most of the registered predatory attacks have taken place by grizzly bears. We know that it is a predatory attack if having followed all the guidelines to avoid encounters with bears that we have given in this article there has been an encounter anyway.
In this case, the bear does not see you as a threat, but as a potential prey. Before this attack, the bear will be curious, with its ears and head raised.
HOW TO survive A BEAR ATTACK
Our response should be totally different if we are facing a defensive or predatory attack.
HOW TO survive a DEFENSIVE ATTACK
Follow all the steps described in the section on how to behave during a bear encounter. If the bear, after all, decides to approach, use the bear spray.
If you do not have a bear spray and the bear makes physical contact with you then you must be certain of what kind of bear is attacking you:
- If it’s a grizzly bear (probably a bear with cubs), play dead and wait for the bear to leave. Lie face down with your legs straight and your hands on the back of your neck. The bear may want to turn you around to watch you. Do not resist. These attacks should not last more than 2 minutes. If the attack continues it is possible that it has become a predatory attack.
- If you are attacked by a black bear you will have to fight for your life. Concentrate on kicking on its face and snout and use all the objects you can find to hit him. If you have an opportunity, try to protect yourself in a car. Climbing a tree is not a good tactic with a black bear since they are better climbers than you. Never play dead.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PREDATORY ATTACK
The cases of predatory attacks are very rare, so I do not believe or hope that you will ever find yourself in this situation. However, if you think you are suffering from a predatory attack, usually by a grizzly bear, then do not play dead.
Use the bear spray and try to protect yourself in a building or car.
In case you can not, try to make the bear believe that you are not easy prey. Try to Intimidate it by screaming, hitting it with rocks or with any object. It has to think that you are a bigger risk than what it is willing to pay to get food.
CAMPING IN BEAR COUNTRY
When it comes to camping in bear country, it is important to follow a series of recommendations. However, in this case, the rules are not general, since, to a large extent, it depends on where we are. We advise you to ask for information at the nearest visitor center.
In general, if there has not been a good policy to keep bears wild, they will have become used to the human presence and food and now will do personal and material damage in order to continue getting it.
For example, in Yosemite, it is prohibited to store food in cars, because bears break windows to eat it. This is the consequence of having allowed tourists to feed the bears for years. Now all food and other products with strong odors should be stored in bear-resistant food storage containers that you will find throughout the park.
However, in the Canadian Rockies, food can be stored in the car, because, thanks to the policies that have been carried out for years, bears are not used to human food.
Some generic tips that we can give when camping in bear country would be:
- Do not cook within 300 feet of the tent and as long as the wind goes in the other direction.
- Do not use perfume or hygiene products with a strong odor.
- Do not store food in the tent
- Do not store dirty cutlery or clean it near the tent.
- Dump garbage in the places where you should. Never store or bury waste.
If you do not have a bear-proof container (United States) or a car (Canada) to store your food and scented products, hang your backpack between two trees at a sufficient height where a bear cannot reach it and at least 300 ft away from the tent.
You must bear in mind that, both in the United States and in Canada, bears that get used to human interaction or food are put down since it will be back continuously to urban and camping areas representing a danger to society.
If you do not want this to happen, it is as simple as putting all the necessary measures so that no bear can access human food.
KEEP THE WILDLIFE WILD!
If you want to know where to see bears and other animals in the Canadian Rockies, do not miss this article.