Throughout the course of this blog, I've tried to show how complex bears are and how little we really know about them. Considering that, we have to wonder how accurate our ideas about staying safe in bear country really are. Most of those safety pamphlets that are readily available in almost all national parks are not written by scientists or experts, but by law firms representing the parks themselves, lawyers worried about litigation who feel that pushing fear and danger will reduce the chances of a lawsuit. While most of the advice is accurate and helpful, some is not...and some could even make a bad situation worse.
For example, the advice given in these pamphlets does not differentiate between the two principle types of bears one might encounter. Instead of saying "if you see a black bear, you should do this" or "if you see a grizzly, you should do that", we are told simply "if you see a bear (of any type), do this". That in itself is not very smart advice as the rules vary depending on the bear. Black bears are normally shy and timid animals, easily intimidated and provoked. Stand your ground and make eye contact (yes, make eye contact!) to show that you are the dominant in the situation, and the bear will back down. Break eye contact even for a moment and the bear may take advantage and charge. Not to worry, though, as most black bear demonstrations of aggressiveness are only bluster and are signs of the bear's fear and nervousness, not a prelude to an attack. Talk to the bear calmly. Do not raise your voice, shout, or wave your arms as most safety pamphlets tell you to do. Hold your ground, be the one in control, and the situation will resolve itself. Grizzlies on the other hand are naturally dominant animals and will react aggressively to any dominant behavior exhibited by intruders. Like the black bear, hold your ground to show that you will not be bullied (do NOT make eye contact) and lower your head and turn it - and perhaps even your whole body - to the side. This is a display of submission and peaceful intent that most wild animals recognize. Speak quietly and calmly. This will keep you calm and in turn will keep the bear calm. Raising your voice and waving your arms could be interpreted as a display of aggressive intent and could lead to an attack.
One piece of advice given is to play dead when attacked by a bear. While that is true if the bear perceives you as a threat to his space or his young, you only have to read any one given bear attack book to find an account of someone who misinterpreted this advice and played dead upon sighting a grizzly. The result, obviously, was a vicious attack, as dropping to the ground in a fetal position is a display of weakness to a dominant animal. A bear that is only concerned with removing a perceived threat will usually break off an attack when the victim plays dead. In the case of a predatory attack, this strategy would be suicide. In that scenario, fighting back is your only option, to show the bear that you will not be easy prey. An attack in defense of cubs would only be likely in grizzly country, as black bears and even polar bears do not aggressively defend their young.
But all of these situations, the little pamphlets tell us, can easily be avoided by hiking in groups and never alone. Supposedly, a large group of people can appear intimidating to a bear, but guru grizzly conservationist Doug Peacock has controversially challenged that opinion. He claims (and I agree) that hiking alone and being quieter can lessen your chances of a bear attack as you are a silent, unobtrusive visitor. Shouting, singing, and clapping can anger a bear, in particular a sleeping bear, and whistling can sound like a wounded animal, so those could be very risky options for hikers. Remember, bears have exceptional hearing - some evidence suggesting in the ultrasonic range - and could react angrily to sharp, shrill sounds. Likewise, hiking in a group could increase the risk of an attack by being a louder and more obtrusive presence. A large number of people alone would not necessarily be more intimidating to a bear, but would give the hikers a greater sense of security and their body language would show more self-confidence than a lone hiker's would. There are no definitive right or wrong rules for hikers, except remain calm and composed. While bear bells are not especially effective, bear spray is, and will most often successfully defuse any situation that peaceful negotiation cannot.
Bottom line, bears are highly intelligent, complex animals, and they should be treated as such. If you're going to be spending any amount of time in bear country, the smartest thing you can do is educate yourself about bear psychology, body language, and communication. Unfortunately, with the exception of Stephen Stringham's When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen, there isn't a lot of available information on the subject. Stringham's follow-up, entitled The Language of Bears, is set to be released in spring 2011. While most books contain some measure of helpful information on the subject, these two will be the definitive works, but I unfortunately don't feel that I can devote much to the topic without having first read both titles and one is still a year off. Nevertheless, I'll try to compile as much as I can from what info I do have into an upcoming post.