Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Bear Safety Research

Reading Bill Schneider's 2004 book Where The Grizzly Walks, my attention was drawn to a chapter on new bear safety research conducted by Stephen Herrero and biologist Tom Smith to determine what scents, sounds, and colors may attract or deter bears. With the summertime bear season approaching, I thought it wise to present this information, especially considering how surprising it might be for some people with more outdated and conventional ideas about bear safety.

Stephen Herrero is the author of the 1985 book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. He has made safety in bear country his life's work and most of what we know today about peacefully co-existing with bears comes from his research and the subsequent book. Considering that this knowledge is ever-changing, he is frequently working to stay on top of the latest research.

Herrero and Smith have been involved in an ongoing research project in Alaska's Katmai National Park to answer the questions posed in the first paragraph. Some of their findings were a bit unexpected and defied some of the standard bear safety knowledge that we hold today.

They found, for example, that grizzlies seemed to ignore dark colors or camouflage colors, whereas they were often attracted to bright colors, such as yellow or red. Some of these bears would approach brightly-colored tents and tear them down and bypass darker ones, causing Katmai park rangers to adopt the usage of only camouflage tents, which they reported had cut bear visitation to campsites by half.

While testing scents, they discovered that bears were usually attracted to perfume, fruit-scented shampoos, and citronella (an ingredient of some insect repellents). It is now also widely known that while bear spray can repel bears, the scent often attracts them. It is never a wise idea to spray bear mace on your tent, your sleeping bag, or your clothes as some people have a habit of doing. It will only get you into trouble!

The testing of sounds brought the biggest surprises of all. We are told to make lots of noise while in bear country, but how much is too much and what sounds really are effective? Herrero and Smith found that the bears took notice of the sounds of human vocalizations but did not flee from them, as we are so often told they will. Whistling is not recommended as it can be an attractant, too closely mimicking the sound of a wounded animal or a marmot. They also found bear bells to be ineffective and largely ignored. The only sounds the researchers found that caused the bears to run were clattering rocks, snapping sticks, and low deep coughs, sounds that would normally indicate the approach of another bear.

I believe these findings are very important and will one day meld into the knowledge that we now have. Bottom line is to blend in with your surroundings and be at one with your environment. While working at Fortress of the Bear last summer in Sitka, a bear sighting in the historical park prompted a group of hikers to spend their time in the park shouting and banging metal pots and pans together everywhere they went. This was overkill and unnecessary and runs the risk of angering a bear that would rather not be disturbed. In my hiking excursions, I found that an occasional low, deep cough and a kicked rock cleared the way rather nicely and gave the impression of another bear rather than an approaching human.

So be unobtrusive in bear country and don't attract the curiosity of a very curious animal. Don't wear bright clothing, don't sleep in a tent that stands out, leave sharp and sweet-smelling products behind, and move down the trails as if you yourself were a bear. Carry the bear spray over firearms but remember that it's no replacement for your brain. I think these are some of the most effective safety rules that you can practice while enjoying yourself in bear country!

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