Yellowstone National Park Ranger and bear expert Kerry Gunther shows a non-lethal bean bag round used to scare or “haze” bears from people. (Yellowstone National Park video).
Summertime for national parks in Montana means millions of tourists — and for locals, the beginning of a stream of stories chronicling unaware tourists’ encounters with wildlife, ranging from clueless to dangerous.
In the roughly month or so since visitations have begun a steep increase, Yellowstone National Park has had three documented close encounters of the bear kind, which have led to park staff putting out a video discussing bear behavior, safe practices and what to do to keep safe around the hungry, sometimes mating creatures, which can weigh more than 500 pounds each.
One video that went viral shows a woman being “bluff charged” by a grizzly. Another incident had a solo hiker attacked near the Beaver Ponds loop near Mammoth Hot Springs. And still another incident was a bluff charge by a male grizzly who was mating near the roadside.
“Many, many people think bears are unpredictable,” said lead bear management biologist and ranger Kerry Gunther, who has worked with the huge omnivores since the 1980s. “Actually, they’re very predictable.”
The problem, Gunther said, is that people can’t always read the warning signs, and even fewer people seem to pay attention to park staff charged with keeping visitors and bears safe.
“Unfortunately, it’s easier to manage the bears than the people,” Gunther said.
Gunther and park staff posted a Facebook Live video on Tuesday that dealt with bear safety, including warning visitors to stay at least 100 yards away from bears.
“Even though they don’t look it, bears are big and fast,” Gunther said.
Gunther said the warning signs that a bear is becoming agitated are:
- A bear who appears to stamp or hit the ground with paws.
- Growling or making rumbling, huffing sounds.
- Flaring lips.
- Bluff charging.
He also said that in both cases where the bears bluff-charged a park visitor, it had given a warning sign that it was agitated, mostly by stomping its paw loudly on the ground, flaring its lips and even growling.
“People just weren’t heeding it, though,” Gunther said. “When a bear slaps the ground hard, it’s telling you you’re too close. ‘I’m not comfortable — move away.’”
He said proper safety protocols when viewing bears or hiking is essential. Those include:
- Pay attention to “bear management areas” — areas designated by the park staff that indicated bears are active in the area. Gunther said this is usually because there’s a food source nearby, like a carcass or certain berries. If those signs are posted, follow the warnings. And, if you’re hiking in the area, stay on trails.
- If a bear charges, stand your ground — running away could trigger a chase response.
- Always carry bear spray and practice releasing the safety on the spray can.
- Don’t crowd around a bear — give it room to leave without fighting.
- Never feed any wildlife, especially bears.
- Never let a bear come between you and your vehicle if you’ve pulled over to look at them.
- Stay 100 yards away from bears at all times.
- Don’t hike with earbuds or other devices that impair your hearing; be “bear aware” at all times.
- If you come upon a bear, don’t run. Walk back slowly, and be sure you have your bear spray ready.
- If you have to use bear spray, aim it at the oncoming bear, making a cloud in front you; aim for the bear’s eyes and nose.
- Make plenty of noise, especially when cresting a hill or coming around a corner, which alerts the bear to your presence.
- Hike in groups of three or more — Gunther said groups of three rarely get attacked by bears.
- Use “bear boxes,” which are bear-proof containers for storing food, and don’t leave garbage out, which attracts bears.
He said the goal of park rangers and “bear jam traffic jam” managers is to “haze” the bear into leaving the area for the safety of the visitors and bears. Gunther said that bears that taste human food, or become “conditioned,” will be less fearful of humans and possibly more aggressive.
Hazing involves rubber bullets, bean bag or cracker rounds — all non-lethal projectiles that seek to move the bears farther away from humans who often go closer and closer, not heeding the warning signs, often in search of a better picture with a cell phone.
Jake Frank, a Yellowstone National Park, photographer and videographer, said that nearly all the photos taken of bears by the park service and posted publicly are with special photography equipment, including high-powered camera lenses and binoculars — staying a safe distance away.
To view the entire Facebook Live conversation, click here.
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