Alaskan's new book touts bear safety, awareness

Stringham's third book is a safety manual for bear encounters

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

KENAI - Hiking one of the numerous trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, fishing the Russian River, or even walking out back to feed livestock - any and all of these activities could bring a person nose to nose with a Kenai Peninsula brown or black bear. It's part and parcel with life in Alaska.

Courtesy Of Peter Metcalfe
Courtesy Of Peter Metcalfe

However, how these situations are handled can often mean the difference between safety or injury, and a new book aims to educate people to ensure more of the former.

"Unlike my first two books, this is a safety manual," said Steven Stringham, of Soldotna, in regard to his newest publication, "Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual."

Stringham is no stranger to the subject of bears. He holds a doctorate in wildlife management and ecology; has taught courses on bears, bear safety and big game and furbearing mammals at the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage; and has nearly 40 years experience working around bears in Alaska, where he has conducted much of his field research from a distance of less than 10 yards from wild bruins.

This is Stringham's third book on bears. His first work was "Beauty Within the Beast: Kinship With Bears in the Alaska Wilderness," which came out in 2002 and was largely a journalistic account of his experiences raising bear cubs. His second book, "Bear Viewing In Alaska: Expert Techniques for a Great Adventure," was published in 2007 and designed to be a practical guide for those that participate in this activity. This new book focuses on educating people to many facets of bear behavior.

"This book teaches how to be around bears safely - how to avoid bears when you don't want an encounter, what to do if you do have an encounter, how to watch bears safely, and how to deal with it if a bear becomes aggressive," he said, naming just a few topics.

Unlike other books on this subject which focus on learning from encounters that led to an attack, Stringham took a different approach and also focused on encounters that didn't end in bloodshed.

"It's like trying to teach someone how to fly an airplane. It's useful to study crashes, but just studying people's failures isn't going to lead to success," he said.

Also, unlike many bear behavior and bear safety books that attempt to generalize bruin behavior over every conceivable area where brown and black bears are known to exist, Stringham kept his book to a local focus.

"It's tailored to Alaska conditions, since some information about bears in the Sierras, the Rockies and the Lower 48 may not apply," he said.

Stringham explained the primary difference is that unlike the Lower 48, where people are many and salmon are few, Alaska is the reverse.

"We're dealing with bears that eat a lot of salmon, and this has a big effect on their ecology, social behavior and relations with people. They're more tolerant of people than bears in the Rockies and many other places outside the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Still, some argue the best solution is to shoot more bears, in an effort to reduce their numbers and make those that remain more afraid of people. The problem with this antiquated notion is that it can backfire, Stringham said, because most maulings already happen out of fear, not aggression.

"Most attacks on people are defensive attacks, such as when a bear is surprised or a mother fears for her cubs. Offensive attacks are very rare," he said.

As such, Stringham said shooting more bears isn't the right approach.

"There are more options for dealing with them, which is what I'm trying to show," he said.

The book is packed with detailed descriptions of bear body language, which Stringham said can help people better understand what a bear is signaling when it is encountered.

"People often misinterpret a bear trying to avoid a problem as them trying to start one, so I explain how to interpret what a bear is telling you," he said.

Stringham also reviews several techniques for minimizing problems with using a firearm as the solution.

"There are details on how to deter bears, such as how to easily set up an electric fence and why pepper spray is often more effective than using a gun, but I do go over how to kill a bear when you have to," he said.

As to who would benefit from this book, Stringham said anyone that goes outdoors, particularly fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers and wildlife watchers, and he hopes they will head this resource.

"I'm trying to keep people safe, and bears from being killed unnecessarily, which there's a lot of in this area, but trust and respect is essential for living together," he said.

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