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Staying Safe in Bear Country

Bears abound in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Here are important tips on staying safe in bear country.
Black Bear in Grand Teton National Park

Visitors to Jackson Hole and both national parks look forward to spying a black bear or grizzly bear during their trip—preferably at distance! Professional photographers from all around the world make pilgrimages to the Jackson Hole area hoping to capture images of these mighty animals frolicking in their wild habitat.

According to Wyoming Fish & Game, roughly 700 grizzly bears are thought to exist in the core of the 20 million-plus protected acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Jackson Hole, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The current estimate of the black bear population is between 500 and 650. So what does this mean for visitors? Well, for one, it means you are most assuredly in bear country. Therefore, having a healthy fear of these carnivores is vital. And being bear aware is paramount.

Bear Aware: The Bare Facts

With more than 4 million annual visitors to the Jackson Hole area, roughly 10,000 year-round residents and “only” 1,200 or so bears, what are the odds of coming across a decidedly un-Yogi Bear bear?  Better then one might think. Grizzly and black bears live throughout the parks and occasionally like to amble near the roadsides. In addition, some of the most popular trails are in excellent bear habitat.

It is highly recommended that you stay at least 100 yards away from bears.

In 2015, there were 59 known and probable grizzly bear mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to Yellowstone National Park’s website. Thirty-four were attributed to human causes—such as feeding them, which resulted in the bears having to be euthanized—and three human conflicts with grizzly bears occurred inside Yellowstone that year. One resulted in a human fatality and the removal of a female grizzly and two cubs from the park.

Because of the very real danger a bear encounter can result in, it is highly recommended that you stay at least 100 yards away from these animals. And if you should come across a bear while driving along the park’s highways and bi-ways, stay in your car to photograph the beasts.

Black Bear in Grand Teton National Park

Hiking Tips and Bear Safety

  • Some trail conditions make it hard for bears to hear, see, or smell approaching hikers. Be particularly careful near streams, when it's windy, in dense vegetation, or in any circumstance that limits line of sight (e.g. a blind corner or rise in the trail).
  • Hike in groups and avoid hiking early in the morning, late in the day, or after dark when bears are more active.
  • Don't surprise bears! They will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make noise. Bear bells are often not sufficient. Calling out and clapping your hands at regular intervals are better ways to make your presence known.
  • While hiking scan ahead for signs of bear activity, such as bear scat, claw marks, diggings, and logs and stumps torn apart.
  • Do not use ear buds/head phones while hiking as you need all of your senses to be bear aware.
  • Do not camp or hike near bear food concentrations (e.g. berries).

“If you see a bear, do not run,” says Steve Cain, a wildlife biologist who worked for more than 25 years in Grand Teton National Park. “Back away slowly and leave the area or detour around it.”

Another hiking must is always carry bear spray!

“Each member of a hiking party should carry bear spray because you never know from which direction or who in a party a bear may approach,” says Cain, “and most hikers inevitably get strung out along the trail.”

Quick Facts

Know Your Bears

Black Bear

•    Color varies from blond to black

•    No distinctive shoulder hump

•    Rump is higher than front shoulders

•    Face profile is straight

•    Ears are taller and less rounded than grizzly ears

•    Front claws are 1-2 inches long and curved to facilitate climbing

Grizzly Bear

•    Color varies from blond to black

•    Distinctive shoulder hump

•    Rump is lower than shoulder hump

•    Face profile appears dished in

•    Ears are short and rounded

•    Front claws are 2-4 inches long, depending on the amount of digging the bear does, and are slightly curved. Claw marks are usually visible in tracks.

Color and size for all bears can be misleading and should not be used as identifying features.

Bear Spray Basics

Bear spray is a unique formula specially prepared for use on bears and must contain 1 to 2% of the ingredient capaicin, an active component of chili peppers. It is an irritant for mammals—including humans—and produces a sensation of burning in any tissue with which it comes into contact.

“Bear spray should be carried in an immediately accessible location,” cautions Cain. “Hanging on the side of back of a backpack, or under a jacket is not effective.”  

The spray should be kept securely on a belt or harness on your waist or chest, on your outermost layer, says Cain. He also suggests users practice drawing the canister and removing the safety (carefully, and always outside) in preparation to deploy the spray so that it takes less than 2 seconds.  

Bear spray should be carried in an immediately accessible location.  

“Do not test your spray,” says Cain. “Most canisters have only 6 to 7 seconds of spray and you want to save all of that for an actual encounter. Instead, attend bear spray training where inert canisters are available to practice with.”  

Use bear spray only to protect you from an aggressive bear. It may also be effective in aggressive encounters with elk, moose, and bison. Once bear spray has been deployed and settles on the ground, it actually becomes a bear attractant since it contains red pepper, so do not use it as a repellent around your camp. It is designed to contact and cause extreme discomfort on mucus membranes (nose, mouth, eyes) in aerosol form only.  

Bear spray can be purchased at most mountaineering or sporting goods  like JD High Country Outfitters on the Town Square. Spray can also be rented at Teton Backcountry Rentals and at certain locations within Yellowstone National Park (ask a ranger at the park’s entrance).  

Grand Teton National Park Camping

Bear Safety While Camping

A fed bear is a dead bear. Careless food storage while camping or intentional feeding spells death for bears.

“Keeping bears wild requires that they receive no food rewards of any kind from humans,” Cain says. “Once they receive a reward, they often become aggressive in seeking them and must be removed from the population.”

One of the programs Cain helped conceptualize is the Bear Box Program that keeps bears wild and visitors safe by implementing bear-resistant food storage lockers at campsites throughout Grand Teton National Park.

Bear boxes allow visitors in grizzly country to easily store bear attractants, such as food, garbage, pots and pans, cosmetics and pet food. When camping where there are not bear boxes, bear attractants should be kept in a hard-sided vehicle with the windows rolled up or an approved food storage container—such as those used for backpacking—at all times, unless meals are in the process of being prepared. The park provides canisters free of charge for use when camping in the park’s backcountry.

Black Bear in Grand Teton National Park on the Road

To Recap:

  • Never approach a bear.
  • Never feed a bear.
  • Stay 100 yards (one football field) from bears at all times.
  • Carry bear spray while hiking and camping.

For more information on bear safety, visit:

 

This story was written by Julie Butler, editor of Jackson Hole Traveler. You can reach her by email at julie@circ.biz.