It seems self-evident that bears, charismatic and thoroughly photogenic though they may be, are also 500-pound apex predators from which humans should keep a healthy distance.
But from these vintage pictures to a recent viral video of a woman standing still as a black bear sniffs her hair, it’s clear the lesson can be slow to take hold.
Summer—already the busiest season for U.S. national parks—has seen some places slammed with tourists eager to return to the outdoors after coronavirus lockdowns. Lax adherence to face mask and social distancing policies is one problem. But overcrowding is also bringing people into closer contact with wildlife. While some encounters may be accidental, others are the result of deliberate interference, as in the case of a 72-year-old woman gored by a bison at Yellowstone National Park after repeatedly approaching it—the second such incident since the park reopened in May.
It’s unclear whether the latest viral video, filmed in northern Mexico’s Chipinque Ecological Park, documents the result of inappropriate encroachment by humans or simply hikers trying to react to a bear’s sudden appearance. But there are plenty of ways to stay safe around wild animals that don’t involve pausing for a selfie. So why, despite decades of incidents, don’t we steer clear of bears?
A history of bad behavior
For about 50 years after the 1916 inception of the National Park Service (NPS), park visitors took advantage of lax rules and laxer enforcement to get up close and personal with the bears who called those parks home.
“Rangers would sort of look the other way,” says John Waller, supervisory wildlife biologist at Glacier National Park. “Up until the 1960s, it was part and parcel of the National Parks experience to see the panhandling black bears along the roads. But a lot of people got hurt.”
As early as the 1930s, NPS knew the dangers of feeding wildlife. Why did the service permit risky behavior?
Then as now, NPS encouraged visitors to get excited about embracing the great outdoors, says Rae Wynn-Grant, a carnivore ecologist and visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History. In the early years, “one of the ways they did that was sensationalizing interactions with wildlife, in particular wildlife that gives a shock value”—that is, bears, she says.
Visitors would sometimes go as far as deliberately dumping food waste, then climbing onto chalet roofs to wait, cameras in hand, for the baited bruins to appear.
For black bears, whose acute sense of smell can sniff out supper from over a mile away, it was easy pickings. Both more populous and more apt to scavenge than their grizzly cousins, black bears were the ones most likely to come across park visitors.
But grizzlies were the ones to sound the wake-up call. In 1967, two hikers were mauled to death in separate incidents in Glacier National Park during the “Night of the Grizzlies.” The well-publicized deaths led to swift policy change at NPS, and while enforcement took a while to catch on, bear-related injuries and fatalities in national parks have plummeted since the 1990s.
Before European colonization, black bears’ range blanketed North America from the Southwestern deserts to Washington, D.C. The great diversity in indigenous cultures led to unique tribal relationships with the animals, from subsistence hunting to spiritual reverence; overall, humans’ use was sustainable.
But European colonizers decimated bear populations, wiping out their forest habitat for agricultural use or killing them outright as dangerous pests. Not until the early 20th century was there an effort to protect natural lands and the bears that lived in them—a conservation movement begun by hunters, like Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted the animals available for sport.
Since then, “we’ve kind of developed a compassion for them culturally,” says Wynn-Grant. “They’re part of kids’ stories; they’re always the good guy; they have families. We like them.”
But our love for bears does them no favors. Bears that associate humans with food will never forget that association, and will very likely die because of it—whether being struck by vehicles as they forage in developed areas, or euthanized by state wildlife authorities because their behavior puts humans at risk.
“You can’t humanize bears. I think that’s one of the things that leads people astray,” says Waller. “People look at bears as some surrogate or mirror of some kind of need that they have. Really, bears have pretty tough lives, and one of the things they don’t need is close relationships with people.”
As an NPS wildlife manager, Waller’s job includes aversive conditioning, a way of teaching bears to associate humans with discomfort rather than food. When bears venture out of the backcountry into park campgrounds or other places people frequent, rangers use an escalating series of tactics to scare them away: If the rangers’ siren-blasting presence doesn’t do the job, they’ll shoot bears with bean bags or paintballs.
Although it’s difficult for bears to live safely in a human-dominated environment, humans play an important role in bear conservation.
“Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, this bear is hungry, it needs me to provide it with food!’ But that’s an inappropriate and irresponsible way to deal with that problem,” says Wynn-Grant. “Keeping them wild and in the back country is what we recommend.”
Or as Waller says: “Just give ’em space.”
How to prevent incidents
Store food in bear-safe containers. Coolers don’t cut it in bear country, Waller says, and sometimes vehicles won’t do either: Yellowstone has seen bears rip off car doors to get at the food inside.
Dispose of trash properly. Many parks have pack-in-pack-out policies; contact your park’s office to learn their specific rules and see what storage facilities they may have on site. Wynn-Grant’s research has found that use of bear-proof garbage cans is the best mitigation strategy to keep both bears and humans safe.
Make some noise. Most incidents result when surprised bears react in self-defense. When hiking in bear country, sing, holler, or clap regularly to announce your presence and give bears a chance to steer clear.
Do not feed ANY wildlife. Seriously, just don’t.
How to react during incidents
Be big, be loud, and back away. If you have a jacket, hold it spread over your head to make yourself seem more intimidating. Then, speaking loudly in a low, resonant voice, back away slowly. Don’t run or make direct eye contact, as those are behaviors bears associate with prey.
Use bear spray. Both Waller and Wynn-Grant point to bear spray as one of the biggest factors in reducing bear-caused fatalities. If a bear becomes aggressive, spray it with steady, sweeping blows as if putting out a fire.
Fight back—or don’t. If a black bear attacks you, fight back, trying to land a blow on its nose, says Wynn-Grant. But if it’s a grizzly, don’t even try: All you can do is curl into a ball, protect your neck, and play dead.