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Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior

Answers to questions commonly asked by wildlife viewers on the topics listed below:
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior
Staying with a group is essential if you are not an expert on bear behavior and well prepared to cope with even aggressive encounters, and if
you are not dealing with fairly tolerant bears.   Even with decades of experience and behavioral research under my belt, solo viewing is
something I avoid with Interior grizzlies and do only with acclimated coastal brown bears or with black bears.  In thousands of close encounters,
I have met only two bears that might have been hunting me, and have never met any other aggression more serious than the occasional
threat that’s the ursine equivalent of human cussing or canine snarling (see
When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen?). Nevertheless, even that
much aggression can be scary, and there’s never a guarantee it won’t escalate. Having a 700 pound bear charge forward a couple of body
lengths and smash both hands against the ground, while woofing explosively, is an experience I’d just as soon never repeat – and which no
one should seek.  

Granted, I have one friend who survived getting numerous adrenaline fixes by provoking brown bears to charge.  He did this depending on
pepper spray to protect him – but only until he discovered that it was ursine self-restraint, not technology, that was keeping him safe.  
Restraint isn’t something you can count on – as Tim Treadwell “discovered” the hard way.  Although he and his fiancé were eaten by a bear, I
suspect that the attack was not initially predatory, but provoked when Tim tried to drive the bear out of his camp.  Subordinate bears can be
easy to bluff into leaving, but non-acclimated alpha bears are more likely to take offense.  Tim had been having confrontations with just such
bears in the weeks prior to the fatal attack and was well aware of the risk.

To minimize risk to children and the physically challenged, keep them with rest of the group. Don’t let kids race around where they could
startle a bear. Don’t allow them to act like prey – e.g., by running and screaming, crawling on the ground, or hiding in bushes.
Viewing distrustful or disrespectful bears should be left to experts, or at least to groups guided by an expert. With all bears, act so as to
increase trust and respect, while neutralizing their interest in people.
Effects of trust and respect (or distrust and disrespect) on risk.
The tolerance of bears for you may depend on their prior experiences with people.  If frequently-viewed bears aren’t harassed or hunted, they
learn that people won’t harm them, and that we will likely treat them politely, respectfully.  Most of these bears treat us the same way, at least
so long as we are in a group, and don’t have food the bears want.

Winning the trust of bears reduces likelihood that they will flee, which would deprive us of viewing opportunities and the bears of opportunities
to forage there. (The places where you find bears are usually those where they can forage most profitably.)  Trust also reduces
defensiveness, the major cause of serious or fatal injuries by grizzly/brown bears and of minor injuries by both species.  

To the extent that a bear trusts you, you can trust that it will not attack you defensively; but its trust reveals nothing about likelihood that it
might regard you as a rival for food or space or as prey. Granted, bears seldom injure someone to take their food or space, and rarely prey on
a human.  But in the unlikely event a bear regards someone as a rival or prey, its inclination to attack can be minimized by respect --
expectation that we will retaliate effectively -- i.e., that the benefits of attacking would be far outweighed by the costs.  Respect can be
enhanced by blasting an offensively aggressive bear with pepper spray.

Trust is not won by initiating aggression towards bears, but by appeasing them when they become defensive.  Respect is not won by being
timid, especially in response to offensive aggression, but by appropriately punishing ursine aggression with alpha behavior (best done by
experts), reinforced by a deterrent such as pepper spray.  Simultaneously increasing trust and respect is known as acclimation. Doing the
opposite is disacclimation.

Don’t seek excuses for enhancing respect.  The less you interact with bears, the better.  The less interest they have in people, the better.  Act
so as to neutralize their interest in us, doing nothing to reward aggression, boldness, curiosity, playfulness, or even attempts to use you as a
shield against other bears.  With rare exceptions, acclimation and neutralization are keystones of safe coexistence.

Don’t assume that a bear’s tolerance is the same every day.  Even at prime viewing sites, don’t assume that all bears are highly acclimated.

Trusting, respectful bears are best approached openly. Wary and aggressive bears must be viewed more circumspectly. Approaching them
may require a long up-wind stalk, and may not get you within photographic distance for more than a few minutes; but it can maximize your
adrenaline rush – an activity that BVA doesn’t condone, but which is what some viewers seek and what some guides specialize in offering.  If
you insist on this kind of experience, be careful not to reveal your presence to the bears, even after you finish viewing. Minimizing risk and
disturbance requires never letting them know you were near.

"Habituation" does
NOT mean habitual association with humans or associating food with humans; the latter is "food conditioning."
Cont. >>>
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page  1     2     3     4
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page   1     2     3     4   Study Guide
If you don’t want to be eaten, don’t be mistaken for food.

Predation is so rare that it’s normally not worth worrying about if you are viewing as part of a group. Even if you are alone, the chance of
being preyed on by a bear is likely on a par with your chance of choking on lunch — so long as you take reasonable precautions.

If you are wise enough not to carry food or anything that smells like food, you minimize risk of a bear trying to take it away from you.  For
example, don’t fish near a viewing area.  If you must carry food, seal it within an odor-tight container inside a bear-proof container.  Select
foods with minimal odor– preferably avoiding all meat and over-ripe fruit.  A rotting banana peel or watermelon rind can bring some bears
running.  Some perfumes – even those in shampoo or laundry rinses – may whet a bear’s curiosity, if not its appetite. Contamination with
food odors is most hazardous while you are sleeping.

Whatever you do, don’t feed bears or try to touch them.  If you try to dole food out bit by bit, a bear may become frustrated and take it away
from you.  If you hand feed, the bear might snap at the treat and get finger food for dessert.   Hand feeding and touching are the major
causes of minor injury by black bears; few people are crazy enough to dare it with grizzly or polar bears.

Don't food condition bears --
i.e., don't let bears learn that they can obtain food from people, either voluntarily or by intimidating the people.

Don't discard food, garbage, trash that smells like food -- including any kind of plastic, oil or grease -- or that is otherwise attractive to bears.  
Yes, like dogs, they will sometimes eat human feces or roll in them.  All such items should be sealed and inside a bear-proof container.
Keep a close watch on nearby bears.  Monitor their body language for clues to changes in mood or intentions.  Adapt quickly. If your
proximity is disturbing a bear, give it more space.  Anticipate situations that could distress a bear.  Take precautions to avoid them.  If a bear
is approaching, appease it if it seems anxious or threatening; otherwise intimidate it.  Remain calm and confident, not timid; be belligerent
only when necessary.   Use alpha attitude to deter aggression, not to provoke it.  
There are certain areas on the Alaska coast where you can see bears as soon as you arrive by boat or plane — areas where you can
approach the bears directly without significant danger to yourself or likelihood of disturbing the bruins. However, those circumstances are
rare. Most advice given here is based on the more typical circumstance where surprise encounters are likely dangerous and where bears
need to be approached cautiously even when you are clearly visible to one another from several hundred yards away.  Be especially wary
where visibility is poor or where noise from wind or water is high.  

While traveling to and from a viewing site, walk slowly, pausing often to look and listen for bears.  Watch for fresh bear spoor.  Note wind
direction as an indicator of whether bears ahead of you are likely to catch your scent. Heavy wind makes it harder for bears to detect you
and reduces their tolerance for people, especially during surprise close encounters.  Both with traveling and viewing, try select areas where
you could see any bear within 200 yards, and vice versa.  Behave predictably by traveling on routes and viewing from sites where the bruins
have learned to expect and tolerate people. Bears might use any trail through their habitat, even one heavily traveled by people. Expect
encounters and strive to avoid surprise close encounters.  Don't stumble into bears and don’t let them stumble into you.  Announce your
presence by being appropriately noisy and visually conspicuous.

We prefer to approach openly so that a bear can monitor our approach long before it would feel crowded.  That gives the bear time to adjust
to our presence and to signal whether we are distressing it.  If and when a bear starts appearing distressed, weI quit advancing.  If it keeps
on signaling distress, we back off.  Once we find a distance that isn’t stressing the bear, we maintain that spacing and do our viewing from a
spot with good visibility in all directions, to avoid surprise encounters with other bears.   In the  event that we observe bears so wary that they
must be stalked, we seldom go closer than 200 yards, and try to avoid being detected until we have finished viewing and have left. If we have
to hide while approaching and viewing,we also hide as we leave. If we were to suddenly reveal ourselves nearby when we are finished
viewing, this could make the bear more distrustful in the future.

The risk of surprising and upsetting a bear is greatest when you are bushwhacking where bears have no reason to expect encounters and
can’t see you from afar, or vice versa. Especially dangerous in this circumstance is a grizzly/brown bear defending a large animal carcass or
mother grizzly/ brown bear protecting cubs. Bears, especially grizzlies, may respond explosively toward perceived threats.  Grizzly
defensiveness is by far the biggest cause of serious or fatal injuries to people.   Make sure you can recognize each species of bear and can
distinguish them (
read >>>>), as well as males vs. females, and cubs vs. older juveniles and adolescents vs. adults.  To learn key traits,
Ghost Grizzlies and Other Rare Bruins. Learn enough bear body language to assess major moods and intentions, to respond
appropriately.  Basics are found at
>>>> Details can be read in When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? and in The Language of Bears.

When in grizzly/brown or black bear habitat, remain where bears can see you from at least 200 yards away if they are well acclimated to
people, or at least 350 yards away if they aren’t acclimated.  Minimize travel through habitat preferred by bears for resting, travel, or foraging
(e.g., along the banks of streams where salmon are abundant or across subtidal zones where bears are digging clams).

If your group of 5+ people is on foot, far from any refuge, stay at least 250 yards from any polar bear or from Interior grizzly not known to be
well acclimated.  Stay at least 100 yards from non-acclimated coastal brown or black bear from central Alaska southwards.  Acclimated brown
and black bears in these regions can often be safely viewed from with within 50 yards if your group is tightly-knit (see below) or includes an
expert in bear behavior and safety
Tunnel vision: Don’t become so intent on watching and photographing bears that you fail to detect other bears
approaching you
. (Photo by Ted Guzzi)
Habituation refers to a bear's fear of  being
harmed by people fading as it becomes familiar
with people that don't try  to harm it.  

Distrust is fear of offensive aggression by
humans -- e,g, hunters.

Respect is fear of defensive aggression by
humans -- i.e., fear that humans will retaliate
against any bear that tries to harm them.   

Habituation reduces defensive risk to the extent
that it reduces distrust, but can increase offensive
risk if it fosters disrespect.  With grizzly/brown
bears defensive aggression is the most
dangerous; risks of rivalry and especially
predation are lower.  With blackies predation risk
is even lower, averaging 1 case/2 yrs since 1900.

Neutralization refers to fading of not only distrust,
but also curiosity toward humans. Neutralized
bears tend to ignore humans most of the time.
(c) 2016 S. Stringham