Strategies for dealing with bear encounters

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The best strategy for dealing with bears is to avoid them in the first place, said Kevin Frey, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear biologist.    

“It is fairly easy to avoid bears. Learn to recognize bear sign, make noise near creeks and in thick timber, and stop once in awhile to look around for movement,” Frey said.

Frey said seeing a bear is to be expected in Montana, and in most cases conflicts can be easily avoided.

When conflicts do occur it is often because the bear has been surprised, teased, fed, or meets a person over a carcass or huckleberry bush.

“If a bear cannot be avoided, the next best thing is to prevent the bear from feeling threatened,” Frey said. “A bear may watch a person, or even stand on its hind legs to sniff the air. That is normal bear behavior, it is just trying to figure out what it is seeing.”

Here are the questions Frey asks when he encounters a bear.

n Is this a grizzly or a black bear? Grizzly bears are generally more aggressive than a black bear. If you don’t know, assume it is a grizzly.

n Is the bear preoccupied? Has it noticed me? If not, immediately back up and leave quietly.

n Is the bear looking at me? If so, remain alert but relaxed as the bear tries to identify what it is seeing. Then call out in a calm, firm tone so it can hear your voice.

n  The bear may turn and leave or huff and appear anxious.

n Give the bear time to react and avoid any threatening movements or sounds.

n If a bear begins to bounce on its front legs it is trying to scare you away or preparing to bluff charge.

n If a bear is moving toward you with a straight back, head down and picking up speed it is charging.

A bear will often run past a person and then away if there is an easy avenue of escape. If the bear knocks you down, stay down until you are certain it has moved completely away.

Bear spray is for use when a bear charges.  Inexperienced bear spray users can benefit from mentally reviewing possible bear-conflict scenarios and from test-spraying the product under different conditions until they are confident they can use it safely and effectively. Factors such as wind or rain can affect the use of bear spray.

Frey urges people who recreate or work in the outdoors to carry bear spray, and says that while it is not foolproof it is a good tool to know how to use and have at hand in the outdoors.

For more on the use of bear spray and how to avoid conflicts with bears, visit the website fwp.mt.gov and check out the Be Bear Aware page.

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