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Living with Bears

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Bear toppling over bin

People are increasingly making their homes in rural and wooded areas in order to get away from other human beings. Unfortunately, these areas are already inhabited. Most of the new neighbours, such as deer or rabbits, nibble on the vegetable garden or the prized tulips, but don't really pose a danger or cause serious damage. When the homeowner makes the decision to move into bear country, however, there are some lifestyle changes to be made.

Ursus horribilis, Ursus americanus and Ursus thibetanus (the grizzly bear, the American black bear, and the Asiatic black bear respectively) all need to be treated respectfully. Bears that repeatedly come into contact with people are called 'problem bears' by wildlife biologists. After making a nuisance of themselves, they are relocated to remote areas far from their home at considerable expense to taxpayers. If they return and the problematic behaviour continues, they are euthanized... killed. The following is a brief guide on how to co-exist peacefully with the original inhabitants of your new subdivision.

Bear Proofing Your Home

It's time to put that dog dish away. Bears have a keen sense of smell, and are attracted to anything that emits an odour. Things we take for granted, such as pet food dishes, garbage cans, or bird feeders lure bears to your house. It is very simple to bear proof your home. Here's how:

  • Make sure all pet food is kept indoors. If your pets must carry that tasty bone outside, make sure you pick it up after them.

  • Keep all garbage cans in your garage. If you do not have a garage, most hardware stores carry bear proof garbage cans, or can help you obtain a set. These cans have special locking lids that prevent bears from getting in.

  • Do not hang bird feeders, hummingbird feeders, squirrel feeders, or any other type of wildlife feeding station outside your home. You should also avoid putting out corn and bread for hungry deer, or having an open air compost pile.

  • Keep your barbecue clean. Scrub down the grill after each use, and store it in your garage.

Trail Etiquette

Often, the places that people want to live or go hiking in are the places that bears call home. Sometimes encounters are inevitable, especially at the end of summer and early autumn. Bears are preparing themselves for hibernation at this time by consuming as much as they can, so that they can live off their fat reserves over the winter months. Just remember that bears know humans are a threat. They are shy and will go out of their way to avoid any contact. However, prepare yourself for chance encounters. Here are a few precautions you can take to avoid trouble:

  • Make noise while you're walking. If the bears hear you coming, they will make a wide berth around you. Many sporting equipment stores sell 'bear bells', which are bells that you can hang on your knapsack or walking stick.

  • Carry pepper spray, if it is legal to own it where you live. You probably won't have to use it. This weapon has been proven to repel attacking bears. The main ingredient is capiscin, the natural chemical that makes habanero and jalapeno peppers hot. Pepper spray irritates the eyes and causes breathing difficulties1.

  • 'Pack it in, pack it out.' This is a trite saying you may see posted on signs along the trail; but it is good advice, nevertheless. If you leave wrappers from your lunch or toilet paper strewn about the forest floor, bears will be drawn to the area. Carry all of your garbage out of the woods with you; and leave, as the saying goes, 'nothing but footprints'.

  • Keep any dogs under control. It is impossible to keep them on a leash at all times while hiking, but try not to let them wander too far ahead. They could encounter a bear and lead it back to where you are.

On camping trips bears, sleeping bodies, and food do not mix. Remember, bears are attracted by odours; so, if you are staying in a tent, store all your food in a bag, and hang it high from a tree at least 20 feet away from your campsite. Alternately, you can store your supplies in your car. Make sure that the car is locked and all the windows are rolled up. Do not, under any circumstances, bring your food into the tent with you. A midnight snack is not worth the potential trouble it can cause. Some experts advise against having sex in the forest for the same reason.

When a Bear Attacks

Bear attacks are an extremely rare event, as bears will go out of their way to avoid contact with human beings. You are more likely to win the lottery or die in a plane crash than be attacked by a bear. Most attacks are caused by humans, whether by ignorance or malevolence. If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation, calm down and try to remember these tips:

  • Do not run! This will trigger a bear's chase instinct, and they can easily outrun a human... even one mortally afraid of being eaten!

  • Talk to the bear in a soothing voice and slowly back away. Do not make eye contact, and try to make yourself seem as unthreatening as possible.

  • Play dead. This is to be used as a last resort. Fall flat on the ground with your fingers interlaced behind your head, using your elbows to brace your body to make it as difficult as possible for the bear to roll you over, or lie on your side in a foetal position, making sure that you cover your head with your hands to prevent any facial or head injuries. Remain completely still until the bear goes away; any movement you make will provoke the bear to continue its attack. Be certain that the bear has gone away before you move.

Every year more bears are killed because of contact with humans. Sadly, most of these encounters did not have to happen. When we choose to build our homes in the midst of prime wildlife habitat, we need to be prepared to face the consequences, and we need to take responsibility for our actions. By using common sense, needless deaths can be prevented. All it takes is a minimum of effort on our part.

1It's to be sprayed at the bear. There have been cases where people have applied it to themselves like mosquito spray. You will poison yourself if you do this.

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