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By Dan Rudy 

Bear essentials: Experts offer advice on bear encounters

 


This year’s Bearfest attracted a number of bear-knowledgable brainboxes, from biologists and behaviorists to wilderness managers, guides and artists. Over the course of the five-day event, experts shared their knowledge in a series of workshops, demonstrations, and lectures with the public.

“It’s a great opportunity for Wrangell residents and visitors alike to hear from some of the best bear experts in the world,” explained Lance Craighead, conservation director at the Craighead Institute in Montana.

A lot of what was discussed was practical, like advice for how best to avoid unwanted contact with bears and what to do should such a situation arise.

“There’s no magic one thing you can do where you can say ‘this will always work,’” said John Hechtel, a consultant and retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist specializing in bears.

Depending on the species, gender, size, and age of the bear, what it is doing and the encounter’s circumstances, every interaction between bears and humans is likely to be unique. But in almost all cases, rule one is to remain calm and in control.

“You have control of the situation,” Hechtel emphasized. “Your voice is a good tool in and of itself. Make a bit of noise wherever you need to,” such as when hiking on twisting trails with low visibility or when nearing a hilltop, or by talking to an encountered bear in a reasonably assertive tone.

Or “be the bigger bear,” as U.S. Forest Service natural resource specialist Matt Jurak says. According to Jurak, if a bear is encountered, you should remain facing the bear as you maneuver through the situation– whether that be remaining in place as the bear moves along or cautiously changing course yourself. Resorting to flight can give the bear mixed signals that you are worth chasing after.

It never hurts to understand a bit about bear psychology as well, to better gauge whether you’ve been perceived as threat or as something mundane.

“If you take a bit of time to learn about bear behavior, you’re well ahead,” said Hechtel. “I think they’re inherently sort of cautious animals,” less interested in a fight than foraging for food.

Like people, “bears have a personal space around them,” Hechtel said. Respect their space, and often they will respect yours.

Some bear encounters require more than temperament, which means it is important to have something dissuasive on hand when traveling in bear country. The guest experts were in agreement that bear deterrent spray is an essential tool to have on hand when walking, cycling, or camping in Alaska.

“Carry it, ready to use,” cautioned Hechtel. “It doesn’t do you any good if it’s not useful.” That means keeping a can readily available, either hooked to a belt or next to your flashlight at night.

If a bear decides to give you a closer look, a cautionary spritz of bear spray ahead of them is often enough encouragement for them to leave you alone. The unnaturally sharp noise and visual impact of the spray often deter a bear before any chemical component makes contact.

There are other deterrents available, such as firearms, flares and portable electrified barriers one can set up around their camping gear. “For most people, I think bear spray is the best option,” Hechtel said, because it is easier to use and has a simpler learning curve than a firearm might.

Deterrence is nice, but the best bet is to avoid unwanted bear interaction from the start.

“Avoiding having to use this is very important, and there are a number of things you can do to prevent that,” explained Harry Reynolds, vice president for the Americas with the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Prevention measures include proper handling of food and garbage, observing park rules when enjoying the outdoors and avoiding solo jaunts into the wilderness.

“Don’t cook and eat in the same spot,” added Randy Griffith, resources, recreation and mineral staff officer with the U.S. Forest Service in Anan Wildlife Observatory and Wrangell.

As researchers, conservationists, and lovers of the outdoors, another recurring theme running through the experts’ presentations was the importance bears have on their environment.

“It’s connected to everything in the forest and other species,” Reynolds explained. As omnivores, bears will eat a wide array of plants, berries, fish and other animals.

In answer to that timeless, impertinent question, bears do – quite a bit – effectively fertilize vast swaths of forest with nutrient-rich droppings and strewn carcasses and seeds, while also recycling and upturning the soil as they burrow for food.

A robust population of bears is not only indicative of a healthy ecosystem but is itself an integral component in the system’s upkeep. Conversely, because they are such dietarily adaptable creatures, a decreasing number of bears in spots across the Northern Hemisphere is evidence of deeper environmental troubles.

Besides losing important components of life-supporting ecosystems, pressures created by expanding development, habitat destruction and global warming mean species like bears will need to begin looking elsewhere to survive.

“People are now the biggest ecological force on the planet,” said Craighead. “As people need more room, we take it from other species.” This, in turn, makes encounters between humans and bears more likely as their spheres further intersect.

While Alaskan bears are still faring better than most, some groups are devising innovative projects to mitigate the overlap of bears, and other threatened species, with humans in North America. The Western Wildways Network (WWN) is a particularly ambitious plan, which would connect wilderness areas from Mexico to Canada and allow animals space to migrate more freely. A full view of the WWN’s map and additional information are available online at map.westernwildway.org.

“We’re going to have to be more tolerant and find more ways to coexist,” Craighead said. Or else, implicitly, risk eventually not existing at all.

 

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