On September 21, Rutgers student Darsh Patel was killed by a black bear while hiking in New Jersey's Apshawa Preserve. Patel's tragic death is an incredibly rare occurrence — it's the state's first recorded bear fatality in 162 years — but studies show that attacks in North America are rising. The good news that while bears are wild, they're largely predictable, and you're far more likely than not to avoid any contact if you see a bear.
In fact, the idea that bear encounters will end with an attack is a great misconception, says John Beecham, the Human-Bear Conflicts Chair for the Bear Specialist Group. He adds that unless a bear is familiar with human food, they likely want as little to do with you as you with them. And even if a bear is habituated to humans, stay calm and reach for your bear spray.
Avoid bear and safely handle encounters if you're hiking or camping in bear country with these six tips:
Travel in a Pack
The more of you there are, the more intimidating you seem. Bears live in a social hierarchy and dominant animals get the best food and habitats, says Beecham. "There is always the possibility that a bear will encounter a stronger competitor for those resources," says Beecham, "so they are cautious." They often respond to people the same way, assessing the threat — which they perceive to be much greater with groups.
Tell the Bear You're Coming
Talk or sing, even to yourself, when you're traveling through areas with bears. "Don't waste your money on bear bells," says Lori Homstol, a human-bear conflict researcher and educator. "I've heard hikers' footfalls before their bear bells, and bears instinctively know what a human voice is."
The reason is two-fold, says Beecham. "There's no point in running because a person cannot outrun a bear." What's more, the sight of you fleeing may also prompt a predatory response from the animal. A charging bear may be terrifying, but standing your ground can dissuade the bear by signaling you're not afraid and could cause them harm.
Keep Fresh Bear Spray, Not Bullets
Bear spray is more effective than firearms for fending off bears, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. "I'd use spray if a bear approaches me within about 10 meters," says Holstol. And the most important feature on a can of bear spray isn't its capsaicin concentration (though it should be at least one percent) or size (at least eight ounces), but the expiration date, says Homstol. The heat won't lose its strength, but the propellant can.
Back Off a Defensive Bear
Bears usually act defensive when surprised or protecting food or cubs. "If it's making a lot of noise, huffing, chomping, slapping the ground," says Homstol, "then you backing away slowly will almost certainly resolve the issue." The bear wants space and you should oblige.
Stand Up to an Aggressive Bear
If a bear approachs you and isn't making noise, it may be stalking you. Now is the time to scare it away. "Convince the bear that it will be severely injured if it attacks," says Beecham. "Make lots of noise, stand tall, throw rocks, and act aggressive."