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Wednesday, 31 October 2007 00:00

What to do when you meet a bear

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In his younger, more naïve hiking days, Joel Zachary found himself watching in slow motion as a bear charged toward him.

He mustered all the courage he could to obey the cardinal rule and not turn to run. He managed to stay put and the charge — like most bear charges — was just a bluff. Zachary did have to change his clothes afterwards — at least his pants anyway.

Zachary and his wife, Kathy, are expert hikers today. They’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and the wilds of Alaska. They learned by trial and error what to do — and not do — in the presence of a bear.

“Early on, we made our share of mistakes by getting too close,” Joel said. “You watch for those signs and signals that you are stressing them and you back away.”

Zachary said they have both been bluff-charged a few times, however.

“Generally bears are pretty forgiving. They chase you for a couple steps and then give it up,” he said.

Bears aren’t interested in eating people. So Zachary’s first line of defense is making sure the bear knows he’s a person and not something else.

“You let it know you are a human by waving your arms and talking to the animal,” Zachary said. “I don’t advocate yelling or banging pans together. Research shows that may provoke the animal.”

Instead, Zachary emulates the behavior of two bears meeting in the wild. One bear will relent to the other, generally by looking down and acting non-confrontational. Zachary does the same by avoiding eye contact with the bear and backing away, letting the bear know he’s not trying to challenge or threaten it.

According to Bill Stiver, wildlife biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, what to do when you encounter a bear varies.

“It depends on the circumstance,” Stiver said. Stiver’s top goal is to keep a bear from getting human food, which in turn creates a problem bear.

“If a bear comes into your campsite or picnic area, you want to bang pots. You are trying to tell the animal not to come into my area,” Stiver said.

“You basically have just rewarded the animal for that behavior,” Stiver said.

If you encounter a bear on the trail — on its home turf so to speak — then you don’t need to be so aggressive. Backing away slowly is acceptable, Stiver said.

“We worked with some of the top bear biologists in North America to develop a pamphlet on what to do when you encounter a bear,” Stiver said. Stiver will share the pamphlet during a talk on bears at the upcoming Mountain Wildlife and Wilderness Days in Haywood County (see box for more on the event.)

Wild bears are naturally afraid of humans, Stiver said. It’s something he counts on to keep the park’s roughly 1,700 bears and 10 million tourists safely separated.

“If they have that fear of people, they don’t take the risk of coming into a developed area and trying to get food and garbage,” Stiver said.

Problems result only when bears loose their fear of humans, usually a result of finding human food. A bear’s first foray into a campground or picnic area in the park will usually be at night when people have vacated or turned in to their sleeping bags. They still have apprehension about the human surroundings, and Stiver wants to keep it that way. So his team sets up a trap to catch the bear. They tranquilize it, tag it and then let it go in the same area where they caught it.

“We are telling that animal if you come into this area, this is what will happen to you,” Stiver said. “We are trying to put the fear of people back into those animals.”

Only after the bear repeatedly enters the campground or picnic area in attempts to get food is it relocated to another part of the park. Ideally, bears would never get a taste of human food and therefore stay wild.

“You don’t want to destroy the animal by letting it get to human food,” Zachary said. “Your mind set has to be to secure that food. You make sure that food is not reachable by bears. That’s the biggest issue, whether it’s here or Yellowstone or Alaska.”

That can even include your toiletries.

“It’s not that a bear is going to go after toothpaste, but if they’ve been in a pack before that had both toothpaste and freeze dried food, to it, toothpaste is a sign of food,” Zachary said.

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