September 16, 2011

What should I do if I see a bear?

To enjoy the last bit of nice weather before the winter, you may be heading for the hills. While camping, hiking, or doing other nature activities, remember that other animals are around. Sightings of bears in particular go up during the warmer months.

What should I do if I see a bear?
The Burke Museum partnered with Western Wildlife Outreach (formerly the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project) to answer this question.

There are two species of bear you could you see—brown and black bears—in Washington State. Black bears are much more common while brown bears (also called Grizzly bears) are rare. For the first time in 15 years, a brown bear was spotted in the North Cascades. So if you see a bear, it is most likely a black bear. To learn how to tell the difference between the two species, click here.

Black bear. Photo courtesy of Phil Myers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan.

How far away you are from a bear can dictate how you react. If you spot a bear from a distance, do not proceed and be sure to leave a clear pathway for the bear to exit. If the bear sticks around, the most important thing is to distinguish whether you are dealing with a predatory or a defensive situation.

You are most likely to find yourself in a defensive situation when the bear is surprised by your arrival—by the time the bear knows you are there, you are already "too close.”

These situations seldom lead to an attack, but here are some general safety tips to diffuse the situation:
  • Talking, clapping hands, or wearing bells while hiking can help let bears know you’re approaching, giving them time to move away
  • Don’t run, remain calm and keep your eye on the bear at all times
  • Speak in a low voice so the bear can identify you as a human
  • If the bear does make contact, play dead. Leave your backpack on if wearing one, lay on your stomach, and clasp your hands over your neck
  • Stay quiet and don’t move until the bear is gone
Once a bear doesn’t view you as a threat, it will stop attacking. Although rare, predatory attacks do occur.

If a bear attacks you in a tent or approaches you in a campsite:
  • Look as big as you can; be intimidating
  • Be aggressive—throw rocks, sticks and yell. Be prepared to fight back if it makes contact
  • Use bear spray if you have it when the bear is at least 25 feet away from you so it has time to retreat when charging
  • If a bear is following you, place a pack and other items down to distract it
  • Climbing a tree may work if a bear is following you but is not guarantee of safety
Bear attacks from both black and brown bears are very rare, even though humans live and play in bear country. These animals disperse seeds from the fruits they eat and help control insect populations, making them important contributors to our ecosystems.

For more complete safety information, go to
Many thanks to the Western Wildlife Outreach for contributing to this Burke Blog post.