An Outdoor View: Thoughts on bears

Earlier this month, predatory black bears killed two people, and brown bears defending cubs mauled five others. While this number of attacks in a short period is unusual, it’s not the first time bears and people have tangled.

Whether you’re into watching bears, hunting bears or just trying to work or recreate in relative safety, the more you know about bears, the better.

I’ve lived in Alaska since 1964, and I still have to remind myself that everywhere in this state is “bear country.”

If nothing else, knowing that bears are “out there” makes you more alert. Just going for a walk or bike ride this week seems more like an adventure.

I know bears are out there. While walking in my neighborhood a few years back, a very large brown bear walked slowly across the road in front of me. I decided not to walk down that road. Another time while riding my bike in Sterling, a brown bear with cubs walked across the road ahead. Timing is everything. If I’d started that ride a few seconds earlier, the outcome might’ve been different. I chose to go another direction.

Many maulings occur when people come upon a bear unexpectedly, surprising both parties. This can happen in deep grass or thick brush, or when the noise of wind or water covers the sounds of your approach. Bears don’t like surprises. Like humans, bears have a flight-or-fight instinct. If you surprise one, you increase the chances that it won’t run away, but will attack you.

The encounters I’ve had with bears have taught me to be alert. No matter where I am, I try to be watchful of what’s happening, ready to react. Startled bears, or bears feeling defensive about their cubs, can inflict a lot of damage in a short time.

Everyone has his or her own ideas about being prepared for bears. My neighbors range from one who goes nowhere without a .44 Magnum pistol, to one who walks with eyes glued to some electronic device. I’m somewhere in between. I figure the odds of being run over by a texting driver are far better than those of a run-in with a predatory black bear in the neighborhood. To me, being alert is ample defense against both hazards.

On the other hand, if I’m on a float trip down a river at salmon-spawning time, and trying to sleep in a tent beside that river, I’ll have an adequate firearm, bear spray, marine flares and a recording of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”

If you’re going to buy and carry along bear-repellent “tools” of any kind, think about how, when and where you’ll use them. Bear spray might be just the ticket in one situation, but not in another. A canister of bear spray, like a pistol, should be carried afield in an easily reached holster, and you should familiarize yourself with using and carrying it.

The recent bear attacks will cause more people to rely upon guns, but will they know how to safely and effectively use them? If you’re going to pack heat, get some formal training, practice shooting regularly, and act responsibly.

If you choose to not carry a gun, the responsible thing to do is to learn everything you can about bears, to think about how you’re going to respond when you encounter one, and to stay alert.

To put things into perspective, unless you’re working or recreating in a bear-rich environment, your chances of being mauled or killed by a bear are slim. Most Alaskans go for years without so much as seeing a bear.

If you’re set on finding real danger in Alaska, consider that more than 30 of us humans are murdered by our own kind each year, and that’s not counting all the other creative ways we employ to kill and maim one another. By comparison, bears in Alaska attack only a handful of people each year, and only a fraction of these people die as a result of the encounter.

To learn more about bears, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s web page, “Living with Bears.” Or pick up a free brochure at the Dept. of Fish and Game offices at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Soldotna.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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