On March 16, Yellowstone National Park reported the first official 2021 sighting of a grizzly. This event — a harbinger of warmer days to come — means not only that winter is receding, but also that it’s time to be mindful of bears when recreating outdoors.
As bears give birth to their cubs during their months of hibernation, many are emerging into the world with their young in tow. Mother bears are quick to defend their cubs if they perceive a threat. Accidentally finding yourself between a mama bruin and her babies is a recipe for disaster.
So, as you retire your skis and snowshoes for the season, and dust off your hiking boots and mountain bikes, be sure to check in on your bear spray. Is it expired? Is it in good condition? Where will you carry it for quick access?
Most importantly: do you know how to use it?
Bear spray is the single most effective way to keep both humans and bears safe in the event of an unexpected encounter. Two studies from Brigham Young University (in 2010 and 2012) analyzed human-bear conflicts in the U.S. and assessed the efficacy of bear spray and firearms in stopping unwanted encounters. Bear spray halted 93% of these encounters, whereas a firearm was nearly 10% less effective. Moreover, bear spray does no lasting harm to a bear, and the spicy feedback is likely to discourage a bear from tangling with humans again.
An easy way to minimize the chances of surprising a bear while you’re in the wild is to travel in groups and make plenty of noise.
In addition to carrying bear spray when hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and camping, it’s also critical to make sure you’re minimizing attractants and keeping a clean camp.
Last summer, a yearling black bear was killed in Darby Canyon because it had gained access to food rewards at a campsite. The site, occupied by a group of teenagers, was “littered with beer and food.” Though one of the teens suffered a scrape from the bear, they were essentially unharmed during the nighttime encounter.
Keeping anything with a scent secure while camping is of utmost importance in bear country. Food, drinks, containers, grills, cosmetics, pet food — any of these things can catch a bear’s nose (which is thousands of times more powerful than our human sniffers) and pique its interest. And, as the old adage reminds us, a fed bear is a dead bear. Ensure that any food or scented items are secured inside a car, a hard-sided camper, a bearproof box, or hung in a bear bag at an appropriate height and distance from sleeping areas.
We’re all itching to get out and enjoy the amazing wilderness around us, and soak up the welcome sunshine and warmth. For our own safety, and for that of the special wildlife with whom we share our home, let’s do all we can to avoid conflict or unintended encounters.