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Ask a Bear: Encounter With a Bear on a Bike?

Our resident grizzly tackles your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Bear,
What should I do if I encounter a bear on a mountain bike?
— T.E., via email


A.
Dear T.E.,

For all you out there who think this is impossible, watch this:




Brad Paras was riding along with his cousin in Canada’s Jasper National Park when a grizzly sow bluff-charged him three times (fast forward to 0:25 for the action on camera). Paras yells an expletive (understandable) and books it downhill and off-trail, where he lands in the bushes. What happened is a little unclear, but Paras explains in the video description, “"After careening down the hill a bit on my bike, I was able to distance myself from the bear."

Did Brad do the right thing? First of all, it’s important to say that Brad faced me in an uncommon situation – one that is very difficult to ascertain the proper behavior. On one hand, speeding away on a bike could be perceived as running from me – something that could trigger an instinct in me to prolong the chase. And since I can reach speeds of almost 40 miles an hour, it’s unlikely even Danny MacAskill could out-bike me in the thick of the woods. Running from a bear is almost never advisable – except in the rare case you’ve got somewhere to go (like a house or solid shelter) and you are positive you can get there first.

On the other hand, if you can slowly and calmly back away and put distance between you and the bear, it can signal that you aren’t a threat and diffuse a situation. Brad’s crash through the bushes doesn’t scream “slowly and calmly,” but it seems to have worked in that way, as the bear ceased charging. Once he’s off the bike, Brad seems to monitor the situation and hold his ground. He also shouts for his cousin to ready his bear spray (and perhaps readies his own) – which is precisely the right move. He calmly moves forward, hanging back after each step to assess the field to make sure the bear is gone. Then he groups up with his cousin, who holds bear spray at the ready – another smart move. They wait, announcing their intention to give the bear time to move on while also speaking in clear, firm voices (which helps me know where you are) and they watch carefully as I round the opposite slope to take my leave. In a final wise choice, they decide to head back the way they came and avoid running into me farther down the trail.

So what’s my final assessment? I think these mountain bikers largely made the right choices. One could argue that if they’d made more noise, it’s possible I would’ve vacated the hillside before they even showed up. Except for a few moments, they made calm, level-headed decisions in a stressful situation, and the outcome – two uninjured humans and one live bear – speaks for itself.

—Bear

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 in: Nature, Ask a Bear
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Ask a Bear: How Rare are "Pizzly" Bear Hybrids?

Our resident expert answers your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Bear, 

What’s the latest on pizzlies? Are their population numbers increasing in a noticeable way, or are they still considered pretty rare?

— Trent K., Boulder
 


A. Dear Trent,

While the term “pizzly” is an acknowledged and acceptable term for a hybrid between a polar bear and a grizzly, I must note my preference for the portmanteau “grolar.” Pizzly sounds light, fizzy, a little goofy; it’s a mere two letters away from bathroom humor. Grolar is just so phonetically regal, tough, and mean — as befits the exceedingly-rare-but-no-doubt-fearsome result when the two reigning terrestrial champs of the order Carnivora drop their guard and put on a little Marvin Gaye.

About that exceedingly rare: We’re talking crazy rare, with only three confirmed cases ever found in the wild. (
The last confirmed sighting happened when a hunter in Canada shot one in 2010.) And while brown bears and polar bears are genetically quite similar — both species evolved from the same ancestor only 150,000 years ago -- opportunities to mate don’t crop up every day. For one, while their ranges overlap somewhat above the Arctic Circle, preferred habitat is very different and maps to their respective ecological niches: Polar bears like to mate out on the sea ice, while brown bears do-the-do on land. Additionally, super-powerful carnivores instinctively realize that another predator of equal size presents an opportunity for unnecessary scuffling, and the species tend to avoid each other. (More aggressive brown bears sometimes chase off polar bears from whale carcasses.)

Most scientists theorize that there have always been grolars since the species diverged, in places where barren-land grizzlies share habitat with polar bears, but that it was never frequent. Some scientists speculate that with the onset of climate change, we could be seeing more grolar bears in the wild as polar bears are driven inland to formerly grizz-only habitat. But there isn’t a lot of hard data to support any of this. The most recent sighting in 2010 has some researchers questioning the parentage of some ultra-blond grizzlies they’ve seen above the Arctic Circle, but without significant DNA surveying, there’s no way to be sure. Additionally, known grolar bears in zoos tend to skew polar: They look slightly more like polar bears, play in the same way (by tossing bags like a seal) and even lie down the same way, with legs splayed out behind them.

In the plus column, polar bears do seem to be adapting to hunt on land more often in some areas like the Hudson Bay region, where scientists have observed them relying on snow geese, eggs, and caribou for food. Other scientists argue that male grizzlies are for the most part responsible for hybridization, and they’ve been observed going out onto the sea ice in search of food and maybe even mates. Additionally, residents of Ulukhatok, Northwest Territories – near the site of the last confirmed hybrid – say they’ve seen grizzlies (which are nonnative to the area) following altered caribou patterns into the region, overlapping with polar bear territory, and potentially mating with polar bears. 

Another wrinkle: Some scientists speculate that pizzlies might not even be primed for ecological success. Their tendency towards polar-bear traits means they’d be less successful than grizzlies in land-based foraging, but their slightly darker or even mottled color will make them more noticeable to prey on sea ice. Hybrids just can’t get a break, it seems. So what’s the final word? This bear is going to go with “nobody really knows.” It’s possible that grolar bears populations are increasing, but even if it’s true, it’s likely at an imperceptible rate. Which means that for now, the mysterious pizzly/grolar bear remains as rare as the Yeti – 
and in some cases, it IS a yeti.

—Bear 

Got a question about bears?  Leave a comment below or email: askabear@backpacker.com

Tuesday, February 04, 2014 in: Nature, Wildlife, Ask a Bear
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Ask a Bear: Am I Safe Observing You From a Kayak?

Our resident grizzly expert answers your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Bear,

I'm dreaming of taking a kayaking trip in Alaska, where I hope to see you strolling around on land. Am I any safer from you on the water than I would be hiking? Is there any chance you would swim out and attack me? If not, can I get any closer to you than I normally would on terra firma?
— Elisabeth K., via email

 

A. Dear Elisabeth,

 

I hope you’ll make your dream a reality – when it comes to population density, parts of Alaska (like Admiralty Island or Katmai National Park) are like Manhattan for bears, and rich salmon streams crisscross the landscape everywhere like Famous Original Ray’s Pizzerias. (My terrifyingly powerful jaws are watering at the mere thought.) Beyond salmon, both black bears and grizzlies regularly comb the Alaskan shoreline picking for carrion, shellfish, seaweed, sedge grasses, and beached tourists. (Just kidding about that last one. Relax!)

 

First we’ll address the matter of your personal safety. Bears are powerful swimmers, and can easily navigate streams and bodies of water that’d swallow a human not bound by boat. But we rarely hunt in water; even polar bears, the undisputed Michael Phelps of my kind, almost never catch seals in open water. Additionally, there are no records of a deep-water bear attack that I’ve discovered (though my claws sometimes get in the way of my typing and dialing). So if you are in deep water that would require me to swim, I’m very unlikely to attack you. But keep in mind: It’s perfectly possible for you to paddle through waters a mere two or three feet deep. In this situation, I can still run at or close to my famous blazing speed — especially if I feel defensive and threatened.

 

Which brings us to our next issue: If you have a buffer of deep water, can you get closer to me than on dry land? Probably — but I’m going to give you several reasons why you probably shouldn’t. First, a few human guidelines: In British Columbia, where bear-by-boat tours are very popular, parks officials require boats to keep a distance of 50 meters (164 feet). Alaska national parks recommend a minimum distance of 50 yards and a preferred distance of 300 yards. But a recent study into bear behavior in the Glacier Bay area of Alaska showed that 78 percent of bears exhibited disturbed behaviors when approached from within 100 meters. They stopped feeding, fled into underbrush, or increased their distance from the boat. 

 

The significance of this is two-fold. One, if you come within 100 meters, you are greatly increasing the chance I’ll get fussy and stop eating. This is bad for my survival, as I need to focus all my energy on food gathering to fatten up for winter. It also disrupts my normal ecological patterns, which quite frankly, is kinda rude. (Imagine if I started following you at close range on your morning commute, snapping photos and yammering. Annoying, right?) But the second reason you should maintain a distance of 100 yards is for your benefit: The longer you stay beyond my threshold for tolerating your presence, the longer you’ll get to observe me doing what I do best: being a bear in the wild. As long as I’m undisturbed, you’re more likely to catch me feeding, playing with cubs, hunting, and otherwise providing you with the money-shot wildlife experience you came all this way for.

 

So what do you say? You keep your distance on the water, and I promise I’ll give you a beary memorable experience to make your human friends jealous.

—Bear


Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in: Nature, Wildlife, Ask a Bear
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Ask a Bear: Do Bears Eat Other Bears?

Our resident grizzly answers your burning questions in his weekly column.

Q. Dear Bear,

Do you ever eat other bears? So sorry for the morbid question, but I’m ever so curious.
— T.J., via email

A: Dear T.J.,

You just had to go there — the one thing that makes my fur stand on end (besides preventable bear-human conflicts). I’m going to need a large shot of honey to make it through this one…okay, ready.

I’ll be honest: Cannibalism and interspecies predation is a real — but rare — occurrence. I’ll spare leading you to the grisly source, but YouTube is rife with videos capturing both brown bears and polar bears in the middle of gobbling a member of their own species. Science has even attempted to study polar bear cannibalism, specifically to determine if incidences might be on the rise because of food shortages related to climate change. Grizzly cannibals tend to be males who kill cubs to make a female fertile again – and are loath to let the meat go to waste. (What can I say? We’re a lot less sentimental than you.)

Black bear males are guilty of cub cannibalism, too – in some cases, 
50 percent of cubs die from cannibalism. In most cases, cannibalism results between a powerful adult and a weaker cub or juvenile; I’m an opportunist, and adult predation is usually way too big of a risk. I know a straight-up challenge to the death against an adult of comparable size could end up with me down for the count.

Interspecies predation is even more infrequent. This is mostly because of each species’ habitat preferences. Polar bears overlap with grizzlies in only a few Arctic places, but food choices (seals vs. grasses, nuts, berries, carrion, etc.) mean we rarely come into contact with each other — and when we do, our power parity means we might just get lovey-dovey.

Black bears share plenty of range with brown bears, but our habitat preferences differ: Where both are present, brown bears prefer high meadows, alpine, and open areas; black bears tend to stick to thick forests, marshy wet areas, and underbrush-heavy cover. Black bears are smart enough to avoid more aggressive grizzlies, and where grizzlies and black bear habitat preferences overlap – like the temperate rainforests and salmon streams of British Columbia or Alaska – we make sure and give each other a wide berth. When we don’t, it can get ugly: Late last year, park rangers closed a trail near Banff National Park in Alberta after hikers encountered a well-known, 700-lb. grizzly eating a black bear carcass. According to rangers, that’s the fourth time that’s occurred.

So there you have it: It’s a bear-eat-bear world out there. Who’s hungry?

—Bear


Wednesday, January 22, 2014 in: Ask a Bear, Nature, Wildlife
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Ask A Bear: What Should I Do If A Bear Charges?

Our resident expert tackles your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Bear,
What do you do when a bear charges? We are about to hike the AT and I have always been taught to stop, drop and play dead, but the veteran hikers say this isn't the case. —Kate, via Facebook


A. Dear Kate,

Congrats on your AT hike! The Green Tunnel should be on anyone’s life list, and as you know, you might spot my cousins, especially in the Smokies or in Maine. (Look out for Lefty – he’s a ham for the camera.)

Since you’ll be tracing the eastern U.S., all my bruin brethren will be of the black variety (though some may be brown, cinnamon, or even blond). There’s a lot of advice out there, and I’m afraid that this bit of advice is outdated, a bit confusing, and even potentially dangerous around black bears.

Your first order of business is to get yourself some deterrent – bear spray, in this case. Brigham Young University biologist Tom Smith knows more about bears than almost any other biped, and his number-one rule is to carry bear spray in bear country, and know when and how to use it. With the amount of time you’ll spend on the trail, it’s worth having backup in case I get up to aggressive shenanigans. The likelihood that you’ll have to use it is exceedingly small, but with the amount of trail miles you’ll log, it’s worth it.

But there’s one trick you can use to ensure you almost never have to use it: Be yourself! By which I mean alert me to your presence by using human sounds. Talking in your normal voice is usually good enough, but clap or yell an occasional “hey, bear!” if you come to blind spots, windy areas, or noisy rivers where you are might encounter me. In most cases, I don’t want to be near you, and I’ll skedaddle at my first chance. If I’m off in the distance and don’t notice you, there’s no need to shout at me or disturb me. But if I do, let me know who and what you are, and I’ll get the info I need to move on to some delicious berries and away from stinky humans.

Finally, I’ll answer the darkest scenario – what to do if I actually charge. A defensive black bear charge is quite rare: If a black bear attempts to initiate contact, it could be predatory. Haze me: Shout, yell, throw sticks or rocks, and ready your bear spray. Use it if I get within 50 feet. Let me know you are not a prey item in any way you can – fight back if I attack. Playing dead would be very bad, because I might be trying to eat you. Sorry.

OK, so that was scary. But if you follow the advice before – and properly store all your food and scented items -- the chances of us meeting this way are almost nil. And in case you want to hear it from a human, here's more with Tom Smith on how to handle yourself in bear country.

—Bear
Monday, January 13, 2014 in: Ask A Bear, Nature & Wildlife
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Ask A Bear: Will Beeswax Waterproofing Attract You?

Our resident bruin expert answers all your questions in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

Q: I'm looking at recipes for DIY waterproofing of canvas trail tarps and many use beeswax in the mix. Bears like honey, but what about beeswax? I'm not talking about burning a beeswax candle and dispersing the smell all around the woods, but I am asking if having a pound or two of stable beeswax soaked into my canvas would be attractive to bears or cause them to investigate my shelter? Thanks! —Dave, via email

A: Dear Dave,

My love for honey is the stuff of legend and children’s stories. But it goes far beyond the sticky stuff: Young bees, pupae, and bee larvae offer loads of fat and protein to help me survive my long winter’s nap. Both kinds of my kin you are likely to run into (black and brown) go to great lengths to raid beehives – both in the wild, and in beekeepers’ hives on the edges of my domain. In fact, beehives offer such a high caloric return-on-investment that once I dip my snout in one, I’m likely to seek them out like a honey fiend. I’ll endure stings all over my face and nose (they can’t really penetrate my thick fur) to get at a hive. It’s worth a few pricks in the face for tens of thousands of calories.

All of which makes your proposition an edgy one. Raw beeswax retains a scent – maybe one that you can’t detect, but one that my super-smelling ursid nose very likely can (even some humans can detect a honey-like scent). That doesn’t mean it will necessarily arouse my interest. In some colder zones of my wild range like Alaska or the North Woods, bees rarely form colonies that last long enough for me to develop a taste for honey. As long as I haven’t raided a beekeepers’ hive, I might not recognize the scent as a neon sign for “food bonanza.” And it’s possible other scents – like your humanity, but hopefully not your chili – would overwhelm my desire to investigate your canvas. But it’s a risk, and considering bee-related snacks are right up there with salmon on my favorite-foods list, it’s not one to wholly brush off. My advice: Skip the homemade beeswax and waterproof your tent with an over-the-counter waterproofer (like Nikwax or KIWI). If DIY options are a must, try a natively waterproof (and lighter!) nylon tarp – or experiment with paraffin wax and lanolin. If all-natural, non-chemical waxes are top of your concern, consider a processed beeswax solution like Otterwax.

In the end, beeswax is probably not the most pressing concern, especially if you’re following proper food storage techniques, etc. But if you use beeswax, I can’t 100-percent guarantee you my bruin brothers will be on their best bee-havior.

—Bear
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 in: Ask A Bear, Nature & Wildlife
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Believe It: Albino Redwoods

Henry Cowell State Park holds an intriguing botanical oddity: albino redwood trees


Nature generally has no trouble inspiring sci-fi or horror movies (Jaws, anyone?), but inspiration from the plant kingdom usually falls short; last time I checked, Swamp Thing and Little Shop of Horrors surely didn't improve with age.

The latest isn't scary, but it could inspire a sort of lyrical, moody film like Solaris. Henry Cowell State Park in California hosts the extremely rare albino redwood (perhaps as few as 28 specimens), and while they don't grow to great white hulks in the forest, they do spring ghost-like out of burls and nurse logs. Check it: Read Full Story...
Monday, February 28, 2011 in: Nature and Wildlife, Weird and Funny
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The Science of Bear Hibernation

Scientists monitor hibernating black bears to look for solutions that could benefit humans

It's no secret that bears hibernate in winter—so it's a little surprising how little we know about it. A new study by Øivind Tøien of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sheds a little light on bear dens in winter, and it turns out what's going on with a bear's body is way more complex than just passing out. The results could even lead to innovations in medical treatment.

Tøien and his team took five Alaskan problem black bears and provided them with artificial dens far into the woods—so far Tøien had to ski out to collect the data. The bears were fitted with sensors to capture temperature and heart rate, and researchers outfitted dens with infrared cameras and other sensors to monitor the bears' movement, oxygen consumption, and even their snoring. (Watch it here.) Read Full Story...
Wednesday, February 23, 2011 in: News and Events, Nature and Wildlife
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Spray A Captive Bear, Go To Jail

Jackson Hole judge sentences guide to two days in jail, a fine, and community service for pepper-spraying a captive black bear

Animal lovers, get ready for your blood to boil: Back in October, 27-year-old Jackson Hole hunting, fishing, and float trip guide Tyler Steele emptied a can of pepper spray on a 177-lb. male black bear caught in a culvert trap. Grand Teton NP officials placed the trap to capture the bear after it had been investigating nearby cabins and a lodge.

But his crime didn't go unpunished: Federal Magistrate Jim Lubing accepted Steele’s guilty plea to animal cruelty and sentenced him to two days in jail, two years of unsupervised probation, 40 hours of animal-related community service and a $750 fine, and $250 in restitution to the Grand Teton National Park Wildlife Fund.
Read Full Story...
Monday, February 14, 2011 in: News and Events, Nature and Wildlife
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Dam Release Threatens Grand Canyon Chub

A dam release meant to protect the Grand Canyon's endangered humpback chub has an unintended consequence: releasing more chub-eating rainbow trout

In a move that drew deep on its inner Homer Simpson, the Bureau of Federal Reclamation caused an artificial flood in 2008 by releasing water from the Glen Canyon Dam with the purpose of restoring habitat for the imperiled humpback chub, a minnow-like fish endemic to the Colorado river. But the flood also increased the rainbow trout population by 800 percent. The bad news? Rainbow trout eat humpback chub.

Cue the forehead-slap. Read Full Story...
Thursday, February 10, 2011 in: News and Events, Nature and Wildlife
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