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Survival: Recognize Grizzly Behavior

Hard-won-lessons and tips about grizzly bears from the front lines of survival.
Grizzly Bear

THINK LIKE A BEAR
Anderson studies grizzly behavior year-round—both in the wild and at his Montana Grizzly Encounter bear sanctuary near Bozeman. “Bears do all kinds of things to let you know what they’re thinking,” says Anderson. “But rarely, if ever, is it, ‘I’m going to eat you.’” Here, he offers four signs to recognize, plus tips for how to react.

1. Whuffing or Jaw Popping
A “whuff” is like a combination between a cough and a dog bark, and jaw popping sounds a lot like the human version, only louder and with more drool. Both are bear signals for “I’m uncomfortable,” says Anderson. Calm an irritated grizzly by identifying yourself as human. Calling “Hey bear, I’m going the other way,” as you slowly retreat should do the trick.

2. Turning Sideways
“This is the bear’s way of saying, ‘I’m annoyed that you’re here, and look how big I am,’” says Anderson. If it turns and looks at you out of the corners of its eyes, it’s sizing you up. Wearing a pack? Turn sideways as well, to make yourself look bigger. Either way, slowly raise your hands overhead. Now slowly back away, speaking confidently, while exuding calm.

3. Shoulders Squared, Ears Pinned
“Watch out if a bear faces you and pins his ears to his head,” Anderson says. “He’s saying, ‘I’m going to handle this aggressively.’” Take the safety off your (EPA-registered) bear spray as you back away slowly. “I’ve used bear spray more than a dozen times. If the bear gets to within 60 feet, aim the nozzle toward the animal, slightly downward at its feet. Give a half-second blast. If the bear is moving toward you, this will create a pepper cloud that it’ll run into. If the bear continues, unleash more short blasts as needed to deter it.” (It typically doesn’t take much.) Note: If it’s raining or there’s wind in your face, don’t spray until the bear is much closer.

4. Sows With Cubs Always Mean Business
Fifty percent of bear cubs are killed in their first year by adult male grizzlies, says Anderson, which explains why sows are so protective. If you know a sow and cubs are nearby, immediately ready your bear spray. “If a cub approaches you, resist the urge to panic,” warns Anderson. “If you back away too quickly, it’ll freak out the cubs, who’ll alert their mom to danger. Slowly retreat, but be ready to defend yourself at any moment.”

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