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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 There’s a lot of advice out there, and I’m afraid that this bit of advice is outdated, a bit confusing, and even potentially dangerous around black bears.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.

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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 in: Ask A Bear, Nature & Wildlife
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Bear Canisters Required in RMNP

Clever and dangerous bears spur canister requirements for overnight campers

Bears like people food. They like it so much, in fact, that they chew through ropes to bring down bear bags, steal backpacks full of yummy snacks, and maul anything in your campsite that remotely smells of treats.

This rampant bear problem has left rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park with no choice: Beginning on Friday, May 1, all park overnighters will be required to carry a bear canister.

Touting the phrase "A fed bear is a dead bear" on their Web site, the park points out that once a bear develops a palate for human food, the animal often becomes a chronic problem and must be removed. Even the most experienced and well-meaning campers can run into bear trouble—in 2003, two men were seriously injured by a bear accustomed to rummaging for food even though they had stored it correctly.

Read Full Story...
Thursday, April 30, 2009 in: News & Events, Nature & Wildlife
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Smarter Than the Average Bear

Six-mile stretch of Appalachian Trail closed due to clever and hungry bear

You know that bringing food inside your tent in bear country is a big no-no and since you're so responsible, BACKPACKER reader, you also are well-versed in the skills necessary to hang a bear bag, right? Well, if you're hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, all this outdoor know-how may not be enough to deter a certain hungry bear.

Numerous AT hikers have reported a black bear that will stop at nothing to get a good ol' human meal, including chewing through ropes suspending bear bags and stealing backpacks full of tasty treats. It's become such a problem that the Forest Service has closed a 6-mile stretch of the AT between Neels Gap and Tesnatee Gap to overnight camping in order to discourage the bear.

Rangers hope that by taking away the bear's food supply, it'll eventually get hungry and move on to getting dinner the old fashioned way, leaving hikers and their grub alone. If you've seen your share of Sunday morning Yogi cartoons, however, you know that nothing stands in the way of bears getting their paws on some "pic-a-nic baskets!" The bear will most likely find different campsites down the trail to rummage for some snacks, a problem that may also surface if it's relocated.

Read Full Story...
Wednesday, April 08, 2009 in: News & Events, Nature & Wildlife, Weird & Funny
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Protecting the Leatherbacks

Huge, already-endangered migratory sea turtles may become extinct in a few decades, scientists say

First the West Virginia flying squirrel—now the leatherback turtle? We now can sadly add another animal wonder to the list of declining natural populations: Leatherback turtles, which nest on tropical beaches, near the Pacific islands, and migrate all the way up to the coasts of California and Oregon each year, are in danger of becoming extinct in the next few decades, according to Oceana, a group involved in protecting the world’s ocean inhabitants.

A majestic sea-dweller, the large leatherback turtle, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and reach up to 5 feet in length, has seen populations take a sharp decline over the last decade, which places it squarely on the Endangered Species list. 

Numbers of coastal leatherbacks swimming near California and Oregon are anybody's guess, but biologists estimate only between 150 and 380 currently call the American coastal waters a migratory home-away-from-home.

According to Oceana, the turtles’ numbers are declining because of mostly man-made causes, including getting captured in fishing gear, egg poaching, and ingestion of plastics that float in the ocean. Floating plastic resembles jellyfish—a primary food source for the leatherbacks. Read Full Story...
Friday, April 03, 2009 in: Nature & Wildlife
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Flying Squirrels Under Fire

Suing over a flying squirrel? No April fools jokes here--the Bush decision to remove flying squirrel from endangered list causes controversy

 Good ol’ George W. Bush wasn’t too keen on the West Virginia flying squirrel. (Maybe it was all those times the creature flew on over to Maryland and kept splash landing in the Camp David pool. Hmm.) Last August, Bush finally took action by taking the charming animal off of the endangered species list.

Now, with Bush out of office and Obama trying to guide the way through the muck of our economic mess, a lawsuit over a measly airborne rodent might seem a perfect April Fools' joke to play on a new president.

But it turns out said lawsuit is no laughing matter.

Read Full Story...
Wednesday, April 01, 2009 in: News & Events, Nature & Wildlife
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Alaskan Volcano Erupts

Mount Redoubt erupts five times, rains ash, cancels Anchorage flights

We told you this would happen: It took longer than expected, but Alaska's Mount Redoubt, part of the rarely visited Lake Clark National Park, started erupting on Sunday and has erupted four more times or so since. The eruptions have sent columns of white smoke thousands of feet into the sky, canceling flights in Anchorage and depositing a fine layer of ash as far north as Healy, on the edge of Denali National Park.

The 100 residents of the nearby town of Port Alsworth have it worse, though. Townspeople have been forced to stay indoors to avoid breathing in the abrasive ash, and since flying is the only way out of the remote town, everybody is stranded. (Hopefully, someone in town has a good board game collection.)

Alaska Airlines grounded 45 of its flights, citing obvious safety concerns of flying planes in ash clouds. Read Full Story...
Tuesday, March 24, 2009 in: News & Events, Nature & Wildlife
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California's Wily Wolverine Returns

Same individual appears in Sierra Forest one year after discovery

Last year, a lone wolverine made an appearance in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside Truckee, California, becoming the first sighting of the rare mustelid in the state since the 1920s. Now, just over a year later, he's reappeared for scientist's cameras only 15 miles away from his original location.

While researchers were hopeful this might be a different wolverine, which could establish the possibility for a breeding population in California, DNA collected from hair samples found near the camera station indicate that this is the same animal. Still, his relative good health bodes well for potential future reintroduction efforts.
It appears the male wolverine can survive in the area for an extended period of time, said Jeffrey Copeland, wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont.

"The photos show it to be a big, fat, healthy animal," Copeland said. "It doesn't seem to be in any distress. He's made it a year and he's finding food."
Read Full Story...
Tuesday, March 24, 2009 in: Nature & Wildlife
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Record Wolves in North American Rockies

Lower 48 wolf populations reach record highs in the Rockies, but population growth is leveling off. Meanwhile, the park service battles the state of Alaska over aerial hunting.

It's official—the wolf is loose. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, North American gray wolves number a record 1,645 individuals in the Rocky Mountains of the Lower 48, with 497 in Montana, 302 in Wyoming and 846 in Idaho. That's an 8 percent growth over last year.

That growth is actually down from the 24 percent average rate of growth since their re-introduction in the mid-90s. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ed Bangs said this natural downturn reflects the fact that wolf populations have expanded as far as they can in their current Rocky Mountain range. The USFWS think this fact backs up the Obama administration's decision to keep the wolf de-listed.
"The population is getting to about as many as you're going to have," he said. "There's a big, healthy population in the Northern Rocky Mountains," he said. "At some point, the suitable habitat will be filled with wolves and the population just won't grow any more."
Read Full Story...
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 in: Nature & Wildlife
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Wolves Delisted, (Sigh) Again

Obama's Interior Department backs up controversial Bush administration-era decision

OK, people, I'm as tired of this as you are, so let's gather 'round the campfire one more time to spread the news: Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has confirmed that gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes will remain off the Endangered Species list.
"The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act," he said in a conference call from Washington, D.C.
Wolves will remain endangered in Wyoming, where the federal government says their state management plans are not strong enough. Officials from the state say they plan to challenge the ruling.

Naturally, environmentalists from Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological diversity and others have complained about the reinforcement of wolf delisting, and have threatened to sue. 

Alright, wolf lovers and haters—there's your latest catnip (dognip?)! Have at it in the comments section below.

—Ted Alvarez

Interior OKs delisting of wolves (AP)
Read Full Story...
Monday, March 09, 2009 in: News & Events, Nature & Wildlife
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