Survival: Recognize Grizzly Behavior
Hard-won-lessons and tips about grizzly bears from the front lines of survival.
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If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls
Grizzly bear expert, host of Expedition Wild on Nat Geo Wild
As a bear biologist and wildlife filmmaker, I’ve made it my business to get close to big grizzlies in the wild. So I wasn’t worried when I took my dad backpacking to a secret spot just north of Yellowstone in 2004. He’d never seen a wild grizzly, and I was sure we’d have an encounter. We camped by a river and set out hiking before dawn. As the sun crept over the mountaintops, we found our first bears: two sub-adult grizzlies digging in a meadow. We hunkered down to watch them until, about five minutes later, an angry-looking grizzly emerged from the nearby edge of the forest. I could tell right away that this guy meant business. His legs were rigid, he kept his head low, and he was chomping his giant jaws together.
Instead of backing away before any of the bears saw us—as we should have done—Dad and I sat transfixed. Then we made an even bigger mistake. When the grumpy griz followed the younger bears, Dad and I tagged along. In a display I now know as badass grizzly bravado—and wish I’d better recognized and appreciated then—the big griz walked over every tree in his path, pissing on them as he passed.
I should have known what would happen next. Suddenly, the bear turned on us. He sniffed, whuffed, and started advancing. Instantly forgetting the first rule of bear-attack avoidance—don’t run—we sprinted for a cluster of Douglas firs. But the limbs were too high for my 65-year-old father to grab. After missing the first signs of threatening behavior, I made no mistake now: It was get high or get eaten. So I boosted Dad up, then found my own tree to climb.
The grizzly was in no hurry to leave. Instead, he wanted to show us who was boss. He didn’t try to knock us out of our perches, but he promptly began digging in the dirt below. (Black bears can scale trees, but grizzlies’ long claws aren’t great for climbing.) Dad and I prepared to spend the night; we envisioned fatigued limbs, hunger pangs, and possibly hypothermia. But then another bear charged into the meadow, forcing Mr. Big to defend his territory. While the dominant bear chased the intruder away, Dad and I took the opportunity to hightail it out of there.
I’ve spent 16 years studying grizzlies, but it took getting treed by one to make me pay closer attention to grizzly behavior toward humans—and how to react to it. I’ve learned that it’s really hard to stay calm and act smart when a 600-pound mass of muscle, claws, and fur is coming at you. So you have to prepare yourself mentally to suppress the urge to run. I take deep breaths, talk in a low voice (which calms the bear and me), and try to exude an aura of unruffled confidence. The good news? By understanding what grizzlies are communicating through their behavior—and faking serenity and being smart—you can feel more confident and comfortable on your next grizzly country adventure.
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.”