|Published by WildWatch Publications
A division of WildWatch, LLC
39200 Alma Ave. Soldotna, AK 99669
© 2007, 2009 by Stephen Stringham
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any electronic, mechanical, or
other means, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data is available on file
1. Bear attacks – North America – Prevention.
2. Outdoor recreation – North America – Safety measures.
3. Bear encounters – Safety measures
4. Wildlife encounters – North America – Safety measures
5. Aggression – Bears
6. Black bear – Behavior.
7. Grizzly bear – Behavior.
8. Brown bear – Behavior.
9. Body language – Bears.
With education, preparation, observation and communication, a last resort needn’t be your only resort
Sunday, 6 June 2004. I’d just spent most of the night packing to leave for my summer’s bear research. Having hit the sack only around 3 a.m., I
wasn’t exactly pleased to be awakened just a few hours later by a ringing phone. Lifting the receiver, I heard the caller say, “Dr. Stringham, you just
saved my life.”
“Who is this?” I asked. “How could I have possibly saved your life this morning?”
“Warren from your bear safety class,” he explained. “What you taught me just saved my life and my buddy’s.”
The fog in my mind was clearing. I well recalled Warren. A powerfully built man with a heavy gray beard, he had entered my course with a chip on
his shoulder, reluctant to believe that a scientist could teach him anything about bears that he hadn’t learned through a lifetime of hunting and
trapping. He was, in short, just the kind of challenging student I enjoy.
Along with other students, Warren watched my extensive collection of video footage and listened to my explanations of bear body language and other
behavior. He quickly realized that there was a whole lot about bears he’d never even heard of, much less seen personally. And of what he had seen,
there was much he hadn’t known how to interpret. This was hardly surprising, of course. Despite decades of research and thousands of close
encounters, there’s still plenty that even my fellow scientists and I haven’t understood or perhaps seen.
Warren went on to explain that he and his buddy had been hunting black bears. As allowed by Alaska law, they had put out bait for a week or so until
a couple of big boars had become regular visitors. Around 4 a.m., the two men had climbed into a tree stand near their bait station and begun waiting
for their prey to arrive.
Unfortunately, the bears that showed up weren’t the big black bears they’d been hoping for, but three even bigger grizzlies, apparently a mother and
two third- or fourth-year cubs. Watching them wade into the pile of donuts, Warren could only hope that the grizzlies would simply eat and leave,
without noticing him and his buddy.
That hope was dashed when one of the bears looked up, saw them, and huffed, alerting its two companions, which then turned nervously to face
Yet, when Warren’s buddy began raising his rifle, in preparation for shooting preemptively, Warren cautioned him to wait.
As I’d explained in class, even a single shot, well placed, can sometimes kill a grizzly; but several shots are usually necessary. These bears were so
close that the men would have been lucky to get off more than one or two shots apiece before the bears reached them. They had little chance of
incapacitating, much less killing, all three bears before the animals reached up and ripped them right out of the tree stand.
While these thoughts raced through Warren’s mind, he also recalled my advice on how talking to bears can sometimes set them at ease and about
situations where pepper spray is “better than bullets.” Indeed, Warren had brought spray cans, insisting his buddy carry one .
Drawing upon what he’d learned in class, Warren began speaking gently to the bears, trying to calm their fear. Surprisingly, it seemed to work. All
three grizzlies bears moved over 50 yards away, then stood watching the men—who quickly climbed to the ground, pepper spray in hand, and
walked away cautiously, leaving the bears free to resume their donut feast.
Warren had learned one of the central lessons of my course:
Protecting yourself with a gun can be left as a last resort if you’ve mastered diplomatic alternatives.
WHY TEACH BEAR SAFETY?
Whether my lessons really saved Warren and his buddy, we’ll of course never know. But the lessons did keep them from unnecessarily shooting
three grizzlies and triggering violent retaliation.
That is just the kind of outcome I hope for. Win-win. People safe, bears safe. This may not be exactly what I live for; but it is surely what I teach
for. Nothing pleases me more than the sweet taste of success — the fruit of all the years and energy that my colleagues and I have devoted, often at
our own expense, learning how to keep people safe from bears – usually without having to harm the bears.
Except for several years as a marine ecologist and five years researching moose and other ungulates (hoofstock), most of my career has been
devoted to understanding the ecology and behavior of bears. I first studied black bears in northern California during 1969. Then followed research
on grizzly/brown bears at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and on black bears elsewhere in the state during 1972-73. After a period studying bears in
New England and Montana, then establishing an environmental protection program for the Blackfeet Indian Nation, I returned to bear research and
conservation in Alaska., which has continued ever since.
My goal from the beginning has been a better understanding of ursid (bear) social behavior, especially maternal care, aggression, social organization,
cooperation, innovation and communication. I began studying aggression to assure my own safety, and then extended it to help assure the safety of
anyone who meets bears up close and personal. I believe that wise behavior around bears can reduce mauling risk by at least 100- to 1,000-fold. This
led me into teaching bear biology as well as safe bear-human coexistence.
To meet the needs of students at the University of Alaska, one of my first priorities was to collect existing information on bear aggression and
synthesize it with my own experiences. As notes for my courses began piling up, I decided to put them into book form. I expected one book of
under 300 pages to cover everything anyone would need to know. Not so. Even after writing over 1200 pages, there was still more to say. So it has
been divided into a series of books, listed on the following page.
To date, I have had an estimated 10,000+ close encounters with grizzly/brown and black bears. In nearly all cases, I was able to avoid aggression or
at least defuse it by acting diplomatically. That is, I paid close attention to each bear’s body language so that I could assess its mood and intentions,
and then respond appropriately to appease or intimidate the animal. Over time, this has led to increasing trust and respect by the individual bears I
meet year after year, lowering the already small risk of attack.
My methods of negotiating close encounters with non-aggressive bears are detailed in my earlier books (1) When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? (2)
Bear Viewing in Alaska, and (3) Beauty Within the Beast. Methods of avoiding encounters were detailed in the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual.
That book also has one chapter on handling aggressive encounters. But one chapter is merely the iceberg’s tip. This book provides much more
The first section analyzes attack risks, then provides numerous case histories where bears acted aggressively because they perceived people as
threats, rivals, or prey. The second section is filled with methods for coping under a wide range of scenarios. Unlike most other books on bear
aggression, this does NOT focus on attacks – cases where precautions either failed or were ignored, but on cases where savvy behavior by the
human kept aggression from escalating and perhaps even mollified the bear – which is presumably the kind of outcome you probably want.
Part I BEAR AGGRESSION
1. How Dangerous Are Bears? Analyzes data on maulings to estimate your risk of being victimized, and how this
risk differs between bear species and other factors.
2. How Bears Interact With One-Another: Bear employ numerous tactics to minimize risk of combat even while asserting
themselves, for instance in competition for food. People can mimic some of these same tactics to reduce their own
risk of being mauled.
3. Why Bears Threaten or Attack People: briefly discusses factors that occasionally motivate a bear to attack
someone. Chief among these factors is a bear's perception of the victim as a threat, rival or prey.
4. When Bears Treat You as a Threat: This is the most common cause of threats and attack by grizzly/brown bears. Case histories are provided.
5. When Bears Treat You as a Rival: Case histories are discussed where bears treated people as though the humans
were rivals for food, mates, space, or territory.
6. When Bears Treat You as Food: Only very rarely do bears prey on live people or scavenge dead ones. Bears
almost never become serial killers like Eurasian and African wolves, tigers, leopards, or lions.
Part II. SURVIVING DANGEROUS ENCOUNTERS
7. Your Options for Responding to a Bear: This chapter lists and discusses tactics that you might use to stay
safe during a potentially dangerous encounter to minimize risk of interaction, and thus risk of mauling. Following
chapters explain how to determine which options are best during any given encounter.
-- Walk away from the bear
¨ Run from the bear
¨ Climb a tree
¨ Stand your ground
¨ Close ranks
¨ Walk toward the bear
¨ Run toward the bear to intimidate it
¨ Try to intimidate the bear by doing something else frightening or
¨ Use your body language to signal a bear to stay away
¨ Fight back
¨ Play dead
8. Encounter Contexts: The level of risk you face during any encounter depends in part on its context. Are the
bears highly acclimated, alienated or habituated to people? Is the habitat open, where bears and people can
detect one another at long distance, or are surprise encounters common? We consider four very different contexts:
¨ Wolverine Creek
¨ Russian River
9. Encounter Scenarios: This transition chapter explains the book’s strategy for presenting a wide range of
encounter scenarios, and guiding you through choice of your best available options for minimize risk to people
and impact on bears.
10. If None of the Bears You See is Approaching: This is the simplest set of scenarios, because they do not involve
direct interaction with any bear.
¨ Assess the situation
¨ Protect yourself if the bear threatens you
¨ If the bear approaches you
11. If a Bear Approaches You: This chapter explores ways of minimizing risk of contact with an approaching bear,
as well as ways of minimizing risk of injury if contact occurs.
¨ If the bear is not aware of you
¨ If it is aware of you
¨ Tailoring your response to the bear’s motive for approaching
12. If a Bear Threatens You: This chapter helps you recognize and understand bear threats. The better you can
determine the intensity and cause of threats, the less likely you are to trigger escalation from threat into attack.
¨ If a bear walks toward you aggressively
¨ If a bear lunges and swats toward you
¨ If a bear charges
13. If a Bear Attacks You: This chapter summarizes methods of coping with an attack to minimize risk and severity of
injury, and then to prevent further damage to yourself after an attack ends. Information is provided on typical
bear-inflicted wounds such as puncture wounds, and first aid for treating them. It then directs you to information
which can guide a paramedic or physician in treating wounds.
¨ Black bear
¨ Grizzly/brown bear
¨ After the attack ends
WARNING AND DISCLAIMER
The techniques and products described in this book, or in other Bear Viewing Association (BVA) materials, are meant to minimize your
risk of bear-inflicted injury. They are based on a synthesis of current research, writings, and informed opinion. However, because of the
unique and unpredictable circumstances of each human-bear encounter, even the best techniques cannot guarantee anyone’s safety.
Furthermore, we have no control how you apply these techniques or products.
You are solely responsible to make appropriate decisions for the unique situations you encounter. Any actions you take should be based
on your wisest decisions and your sound judgment. It is your responsibility to be cautious in bear habitat. Nothing in this book or in other
BVA materials should be interpreted to mean that you can reduce the degree of caution necessary in dealing with bears, especially in
situations where bears should be avoided, and where diplomacy is less appropriate for dealing with bears than deterring or killing them.
Neither the author of this book, nor anyone else involved in its publication or sale, warranties that following its advice will protect you
from injury by bears or other animals. We shall have no responsibility nor accept any liability for any actions you take as a result of
information in this book. Not all bear-safety experts agree on everything said in this (or any other) book.
Keep in mind too that research on bear behavior and on safety precautions is ongoing and continues to provide new insights, approaches,
To round out your education on bear safety, you should consult additional sources, written and otherwise, including BVA’s website http:
//web.mac.com/gobearviewing which has over 100 additional photos indexed to illustrate points made in this book.
It is extremely difficult to discern reliable patterns in the behaviors of bears and people, and then to convey those very complex patterns
in words that are sufficiently simple, brief and clear to satisfy readers. Given the limitations on what words can convey, you should
supplement reading this and other written material with careful study of video footage on bear behavior. BVA has produced videos for
this purpose, including one to supplement this book, showing many of the encounters described herein.
You should also get field training under the guidance of a certified expert in both ursine diplomacy and the ADD safety strategies.
Part I BEAR AGGRESSION
1. How Dangerous Are Bears?
2. How Bears Interact With One Another
3. Why Bears Threaten or Attack People
4. When Bears Treat You as a Threat
5. When Bears Treat You as a Rival
6. When Bears Treat You as Food
Part II. SURVIVING DANGEROUS ENCOUNTERS
7. Your Options for Responding to a Bear
8. Encounter Contexts
9. Encounter Scenarios
10. If None of the Bears You See is Approaching
11. If a bear approaches you
12. If a bear threatens you
13. If a bear attacks you
Practical Tips for Minimizing Risk