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Alaska editorial: Be bear aware

Posted: September 7, 2012 - 12:09am

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Our bears are busy fattening up for the winter, which isn’t too far away. Humans need to be careful about inadvertently helping them pack on the calories by leaving garbage, dog food or other edibles out where bears can find it.

But that’s only one part of the rule book for living with grizzlies and black bears. The other part is about knowing how to behave in the presence of a bear.

Interior Alaska has had some well-publicized instances of both situations this summer. Almost all ended without human tragedy. One ended in a terrible human death.

The rules for sharing the land with bears are grounded in history and common sense. They are easy to understand and easy to follow, but it’s important to note that they don’t guarantee a safe encounter. Bears are wild creatures, after all.

Even so, biologists say that bears are generally wary of humans and usually will try to avoid them. One exception is the bear that has become “food conditioned,” which is a bear that has come to associate humans with food, either because humans have been directly feeding the bear or because those humans have been leaving garbage or other sources of food out where bears can find it.

There’s an easy lesson there. Don’t feed bears and don’t make food accessible to bears, whether at home or while camping.

But what to do if you run into a bear?

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has this information on its website:

• “If you see a bear that is far away or doesn’t see you, turn around and go back, or circle far around. Don’t disturb it.

•”If you see a bear that is close or it does see you, stay calm. Attacks are rare. Bears may approach or stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you. These are curious, not aggressive, bears. Be human. Stand tall, wave your arms and speak in a loud and low voice. Do not run! Stand your ground or back away slowly and diagonally. If the bear follows, stop.

•”Almost all charges are ‘bluff charges.’ Do not run! Olympic sprinters cannot outrun a bear, and running may trigger an instinctive reaction to chase.

•”If a bear approaches your campsite, aggressively chase it away. Make noise with pots and pans, throw rocks and, if needed, hit the bear. Do not let the bear get any food.

•”If you have surprised a bear and are contacted or attacked and making noise or struggling has not discouraged an attack, play dead. Curl up in a ball with your hands laced behind your neck. The fetal position protects your vital organs. Surprised bears usually stop attacking once you are no longer a threat.

•”If you have been stalked by a bear, a bear is approaching your campsite or an attack is continuing long after you have ceased struggling, fight back! Predatory bears are often young bears that can be successfully intimidated or chased away. Use a stick, rocks or your hands and feet.”

What about carrying a gun? The Department of Natural Resources warns that “more people are hurt by the guns they carry than are hurt by bears.” People wanting to carry a gun are advised to carry one that will stop a bear, such as a 12-gauge shotgun or .300 mag rifle. Guns require training and practice, though. So, if you carry one, make sure you know how to kill the bear with it. Merely injuring a bear could make it more aggressive.

The department advises that people carry pepper spray if they feel the need to have some protection. The benefit, the department notes, “teaches bears a lesson without permanently maiming them.”

So be bear aware.

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