Being aware in bear country

I recently got a call from a friend that is a typical call we receive when living in places like the Kenai Peninsula. Our friends were getting ready to visit us and asking, “Do I need to be worried about encountering a bear?” and “What can I do to keep myself and my family safer while camping, hiking and fishing?”

These are important questions to ask when visiting the peninsula, a place with 1.32 million acres of wilderness and 4.2 million acres of federally protected lands to support bears. All this while offering a rare find in Alaska — a road system.

The road provides greater access to natural amenities, bringing an estimated one million people to enjoy the area each summer and a human population that has doubled over the last two and half decades.

This means that people and the Kenai Peninsula’s brown and black bears are increasingly sharing the same place. So, what can you do to stay safer while in bear country? Learning about bears and practicing bear-aware strategies is our best solution for minimizing conflicts.

If we met up with a bear on the trail, river or campground, knowledge of bear behavior could help us. Bears are opportunistic, eating the most accessible food they can find. On the peninsula, natural food is abundant, including, of course, salmon in the many anadromous river and stream systems.

Unfortunately, bears will also take advantage of unsecured food sources from people, including fish stringers, trash and coolers. After they receive enough food rewards, bears become what biologists term “food conditioned.”

These food-conditioned bears often recognize campsites, coolers, backpacks, fish stringers and even unlocked vehicles as food sources and become bolder around people. When this occurs, conflicts almost inevitably follow that affect the safety of people and bears. In some cases, bears that become food conditioned are euthanized for public safety.

Bears are also protective of their personal space, young and food sources. When they perceive a threat, bears may become stressed and act defensively. These behaviors can range from a change in posture, such as standing up to get a better look or scent, to a charge.

So, what can you do? The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Chugach National Forest and the Alaska Department of Game and Fish suggest these bear aware tips to minimize the changes of a negative encounter:

• Make noise — sing, clap your hands or talk loudly.

• Hike in group sizes of three or more and keep children and pets close.

• Slow down and be alert. Look for bear signs such as tracks and scat.

• Respect bears’ space — do not seek out or approach bears or otherwise behave in a manner that could lead to human-bear conflicts.

• Do not leave food, fish or other attractants unattended. This includes keeping a clean camp, disposing of fish waste and garbage properly, and using bear-proof containers or a locked vehicle to store food and coolers that are not under your immediate control.

• If a bear approaches while you are reeling in a fish, cut the line. Do not let a bear get a fish while hooked to your rod.

• Carry accessible bear spray, know how it works and be prepared to use it!

Being bear aware means maintaining situational awareness, being prepared to see a bear and recognizing bear behavior.

Carrying accessible bear spray on your belt or in a chest harness makes it easy to use if you find yourself in a situation where you are suddenly too close to a bear or encounter a bear that approaches you. Bear spray is your best tool to tell a bear, “This close, and no farther!”

When sprayed, the active ingredient in bear spray, red pepper oil, comes out in a fog. If a bear moves through the cloud of aerosolized spray, it will cause immediate discomfort and irritation to the eyes, nose and mouth.

This will allow you an opportunity to increase your distance. If you have sprayed a bear, leave the area. Let an agency such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge know of your encounter. In some situations, agencies may want to take management actions, including adding signage to alert visitors of bear activity in the area.

In the best scenarios, you see the bear first, and it has not noticed you. You or your group should quietly and slowly back away while keeping an eye on the bear to see if the bear notices you.

If the bear becomes aware of your presence, stop moving, speak in a calm voice, get your bear spray ready, group together with others for additional safety and NEVER RUN as running can provoke a chase reaction by the bear.

If you and a bear notice each other at the same time, the same recommendation applies. You might see that the bear is standing on its hind legs, sniffing the air and trying to get a better look at you — these are likely not threatening behaviors, and running in these cases could provoke a charge.

Last, a charging bear may stop and pull away before making contact if you stand your ground, all the while being ready to deploy your bear deterrent.

Again, maintaining situational awareness is one of the best steps to reduce your chances of surprising a bear at close range. Slow down and make noise on densely vegetated trails where visibility is obscured and/or in a place where natural noise on windy days or along a fast-moving stream can increase the chances of approaching a bear undetected.

Taking the steps described above will help reduce your chances of a human-bear conflict, keeping you and the bear safer. Find more details on what to do at the ADFG home page at Links to click are “Reporting a Wildlife Encounter” and “Living With Wildlife.” Or contact the Soldotna office for ADFG at 907-269-9368.

We are glad to hear from our friends or the public who ask us about minimizing their risk of a conflict with a bear. If they ask this question, it means they are prepared to see a bear and want to be ready when they do.

We always tell them to carry bear spray — it is the most effective deterrent and avoids wounding a bear, which can present a more dangerous situation. Additionally, keeping a clean camp is critical — use bear-resistant containers, don’t bring food or other attractants into your tent or leave it out overnight on picnic tables, and carry out trash and dispose of it properly in bear-resistant receptacles.

Some suggest yelling, “Hey, bear,” but this can confuse other people in the area. They may think you are warning them that a bear is nearby. So, we say things like, “Yo Yogi,” instead.

Still, we have found that some of the best noisemakers for bear safety are children that have been in the car for several hours, so encourage those energized conversations on the trail!

Of course, if you don’t have chatty and energetic voices, you will likely find it awkward to yell out something like, “Yo Yogi,” while you are hiking to notify bears of your presence. But chalk it up to being part of the experience — it might just be the difference between surprising or not surprising a bear.

Kris Inman is the Supervisory Biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and previously worked on black bear research projects and with local communities to develop “bear smart” practices to keep themselves, their property, and bears safer.

Matt Conner is the Supervisory Park Ranger for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and refuge liaison for the Kenai-Russian River Complex Interagency Coordination Group.

Marion Glaser is the Interagency Coordinator for the Seward Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest.

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