Bear Safety

On May 7, 2011, in Trip Planning Help, by Justin_Matley

Bear in mind
Education is the key to bear safety

By Justin Matley


According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, bear attacks are rare when compared to the number of bear encounters and people exploring in bears’ territory.

But the unlikelihood of a bear attack shouldn’t give anyone reason to be ill prepared, take unnecessary risks or ignore the potential for a bear encounter. Caution is warranted, and education is the key to safe travel in bear country.

Bear safety starts with education, followed by practice of the newly-learned bear safety skills. Practice means employing the knowledge and skills whenever you are in bear territory. Individuals should begin their outings thinking about common locations or terrain features where bear encounters are likely; bear food sources; bear signs; what to do in the event of an encounter; how to employ any protective equipment being carried; and first aid or getting help. This could take seconds and help travelers react appropriately in the event of an emergency.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been stepping up bear safety education for the past few years, following high-profile attacks and research into the circumstances of bear encounters, causes for attacks, and causes of aversion from contact. Their findings are being shared during presentations at large expos, through personal visits and training offered free of charge to groups who request it, in print and video works, and online.

“We have quite a few programs,” said Jim Holmes, wildlife technician for Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We have a couple people down in the Kenai and one here in Anchorage that create and produce different educational programs. They have people in the schools all over the peninsula and here in Anchorage. They’ve also given quite a bit of educational information to the schools to keep full time. We offer bear safety education classes to almost any group we can find free of cost.”

These groups include military training groups, clubs such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and others who request training. Based on the department’s findings and published bear safety information, the following is a brief summary of how to steer clear of a bear encounter and what to do if one occurs.


Bears in Alaska

Alaska is home to all three species of North American bear: black, brown and polar. Wherever you are there is a potential for a bear encounter, and a greater potential exists where the populations are heaviest, where they overlap, or where food sources are abundant.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that during the first 85 years of the 20th century, 20 people died in bear attacks in Alaska. In comparison, in 10 years from 1975-85, 19 people in Alaska were killed by dogs.


Common Bear Encounters Circumstances

Bears have a limited time to build up fat for winter hibernation. Through learned behavior, hunting behavior or their powerful sense of smell, they will converge on food sources. These include places where fish are spawning, where herd and prey animals congregate, at animal carcasses and around human garbage or food leftovers. Stay away from these places and don’t create a tempting situation for bears by leaving garbage and food unsecure or nearby. It is likely you will smell a carcass before seeing it. Consider yourself lucky and calmly leave the area.


What Triggers Bear Contact

Bears defend their food whether it is fish in a stream, their feeding carcass, or your garbage that they have claimed. Bears will also protect their personal space, so stay at a distance.

Females become instantly ferocious to protect their cubs. If you see a cub, the mom will be nearby. Never get near a cub, and more importantly do not get between a cub and its mother. If you see a cub, try to locate the mother while calmly leaving the area the way you came. Do not appear to be interested in the cubs. Do not look at them, put the camera away, and calmly leave.

Last, bears can be curious or attempt to defend their territory.


Bear Identification

Individual species of bear have been known to react differently to situations. In fact, there are slight variations for dealing with a black or brown bear encounter. Learn how to properly identify the bear species.


Black Bear:

  • Height – No taller than 2.5 feet with fairly level back and shoulders.
  • Weight – Adult males at 180-200 pounds in spring (gain up to 20% by late fall).
  • Colors – Black, brown, cinnamon (reddish-brown fringe with black beneath), black with brownish muzzle. White or cream-colored bears and blue (glacier) are found in some areas but are not as common as the black and brown varieties.
  • Tail – Up to two inches long.
  • Ears – Prominent compared to size of skull.
  • Face – Semi-straight profile along brow and nose, forms an elongated slope with less-defined brow.
  • Claws – Severe curve, cat-like claws, useful for climbing and catching prey, rarely longer than 1.5 inches
  • Tracks – Front paw in rounded pattern, curved row of five toes, separated toes with claw holes fairly close to the tip of each toe.


Brown or Grizzly Bear:

  • Height – Typically larger than black bear with shoulder height from 35 to 60 inches. Coastal brown bear are typically larger than inland grizzlies due in part to diet. Back slopes upward from tail to shoulders, forming a shoulder hump just below the neck.
  • Weight – Adult males may weigh 500-900 pounds before denning in fall and may reach a weight of up to 1,400 pounds. Average inland males or grizzly bear weighs 500 pounds
  • Colors – Blonde, brown, black or a combination or either
  • Tail – up to 6 inches
  • Ears – Small compared to size of skull
  • Face – Muzzle is well-defined from the face with a broad, defined brow
  • Claws – Long with gradual curve useful for excavating earth for roots and smaller animals, up to 6 inches
  • Tracks – Front paw in wide pattern, semi-straight row of five toes, toes close together with claw holes far from the tip of each toe



The General Do’s and Don’ts

According to Alaska Wildlife Biologists:


  • Stay away from bear feeding areas, spawning streams and carcasses
  • Remain calm during an encounter
  • Stand your ground if the bear approaches
  • Stand close together in groups to appear larger
  • Talk to the bear in a normal voice, unless it persists in approaching, then you should start yelling, banging pots, etc.
  • Increase your distance (diagonally) from the bear as long as it is not approaching
  • For brown bear only, play dead if the bear is acting defensively (for example, defending cubs or food) and makes contact with you. This helps tell the bear you are not a threat.
  • Always defend yourself and fight back against black bear contact, regardless of circumstances. Early aggression and scaring the black bear away with yelling, throwing stones and branches, etc., could be affective.


  • Surprise a bear. Instead, make noise during your travels.
  • Approach bears, particularly brown bears
  • Challenge a bear or make bear noises
  • Appear interested in or get close to cubs. Don’t ever get between a mother and cubs.
  • Run from a bear. You can not outrun a bear. They travel up to 35 miles per hour.
  • Scream or squeal
  • Play dead if a bear is not acting defensively (for example, it is stalking you or attacks you in a tent). Instead, fight back.
  • Feed or attempt to give food to a bear, even one that looks “safe”
  • Cuddle a bear, no matter how cute they may seem


Defense Tools

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “State law allows a bear to be shot in self-defense if you did not provoke the attack and if there is no alternative.  The hide, skull and claws must be salvaged and turned over to the authorities. At times, the meat must also be turned in for study.

The department recommends a .300-Magnum rifle or a 12-gauge shotgun with rifled slugs if a firearm is to be used for protection. It reports the commonly used .44-Magnum handgun might be inadequate in emergency situations, especially in untrained hands.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game also promotes the use of bear spray, especially for those who are uncomfortable with firearms or who have children nearby. Bear spray could be safer for the user and eliminate the need for the department of fish and game to track a wounded bear (potentially more harmful to humans) after a poor firearm shot. Spray is, however, only effective if sprayed on the bear’s face.

Holmes encourages bear spray use and has also used it to deter moose. The sound and large, colored cloud of spray help to deter the animal in question. The spray is affective with human encounters as well.

Electric fences are becoming more popular with proven wildlife biologists and guides. They could be purchased in packable sizes or unites to surround an entire cabin. Their batteries are made to last for weeks or months and solar systems will keep them active indefinitely.


After a Shooting

Call a state trooper to report the incident. The hide, skull and claws must be salvaged and turned over to the authorities. It could not be kept. The trooper may investigate the scene, and the shooter is required to fill out a few forms.

Holmes said he’s seen many outdoorsmen choose an alternative method.

“I’d say 90 percent of the people and hunters I talk to that bought a bear license did so just in case they have to shoot one,” says Holmes. “They may not use it, but if they do have to shoot a bear, they can keep the bear after all the hard work.”

A license costs $25. The hide and skull must still be taken to a taxidermist or Alaska Department of Fish and Game office for tagging, but the meat and fur could be processed and kept by the shooter.


Group education Sessions

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers group bear safety classes. Call the head educator, Elizabeth Manning, at (907) 267-2168. For more information about bear behaviors, protection and safety, go to the department’s web site at


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