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On some nights, Tom Smith has counted up to 30 bears around his tent. Granted, he works in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, a sanctuary more densely populated with brown bears (grizzlies) than anywhere else on Earth. In such close quarters, Smith, a research wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological
Survey Alaska Biological Science Center, has instinctively sensed the value of “blending in.” Bears, he reasons, “are extremely curious animals. Therefore, any novelty in sight, scent, or sound is likely to grab their attention and tempt them to investigate.”
Smith’s logic was dramatically confirmed when his boss ordered a switch to camouflage shelters because he didn’t like the “visual scar” their garish tents painted on the quiet landscape. “Immediately,” says Smith, “bear visitation to our camps decreased markedly. It didn’t take a genius to realize our bright, yellow-and-blue tents had been attracting bears.”
No scientific studies had been conducted to test color vision in brown bears (although Alaskan bear biologist Kellie Pierce had related that Yupik Eskimos warned him “not to wear red, orange, or other bright colors because bears would come and get me”), so Smith undertook a series of zoo trials. His finding: Grizzlies can distinguish colors.
Next, out on the tundra, he erected several brightly colored panels. While research is ongoing, preliminary results are consistent with Smith’s color premise. “At this point in my studies, although more research is needed, I believe the safest choice is camouflage,” advises Smith.
Aware that some wilderness wanderers view bright tents as a safety necessity-for spotting from the air in case of an emergency-Smith suggests a compromise: “a camouflaged rainfly…with a brightly colored tent. With the fly in place, the tent is camouflaged. By removing it, you have your rescue signal.”
He’s also found that bears do indeed investigate novelties within their environment, whether it’s a structure placed there by the National Park Service or a backpacker’s tent. “A large, unbroken pattern such as a tent, even in natural colors, stands out as odd and may pique a bear’s curiosity,” Smith says.
“In the (crowded) forest, visual cues aren’t so critical,” he adds. “But out on the tundra, where you can see for miles, they are. Worse yet, we love to camp on high, exposed places with a view, thereby offering bears a panoramic view of us.”
Along with testing their vision, Smith is also looking into the auditory curiosity of bears. After constructing a blind atop a 70-foot cliff, the intrepid researcher connected a line to a bear bell he tied in a bush beside a game trail directly below. When bruins came by, Smith yanked the string to ring the bell. “In 15 trials,” he reports, “not a single bear investigated the bell, or even turned to look at it.”
Yet when Smith snapped a twig from his hiding place, it got the immediate attention of every bear, with reactions ranging from “freezing in place and being acutely alert to running away.” Similar responses were elicited when Smith
vocalized a “huff!” Yet the bell, no matter how loudly it jangled, was ignored. Why?
“Apparently, they mistake it for some weird bird, while the huff and stick-snap suggest the approach of another bear,” he says. “And bears are very concerned about other bears. If you want to assume that every grizzly you encounter will have had enough contact with bell-wearing hikers to make the connection, that’s your choice. I’m not so trusting.”
Smith relies on shouting and hand-clapping to alert bears of his approach. “Clapping is especially effective because it approximates the sound of a stick breaking. Also, your voice and hands are always with you, cost nothing, and can be used only when needed, rather than constantly disrupting the natural soundscape.”
So, to sum up grizzly-country safety, evidence is mounting that tinkle bells, bright colors, and conspicuous campsites are likely bad choices.
But what about the shy and ubiquitous black bear? While few hikers go belled in blackie country, or need to, color and location still count. Witness:
When setting out “camera traps” during field studies for the Colorado State Division of Wildlife, black bear biologist Tom Beck mounted the delicate infrared transmitters in lengths of sky-blue plastic pipe for protection. Repeatedly, Beck reports, “I’ve seen black bears spot the specks of color from a distance, abandon what they’re doing, and come to investigate. In close, they seem even more interested in the odd color and shape of the pipe than in the rotten fish we use as bait.”
In another parallel, both researchers say they’ve seen both species of bear “visually lock onto” brightly dressed humans from half a mile away.
While granting that black bears (grisly exceptions noted) are far less bold than browns, Beck seconds Smith in advising that blend-in camps, gear, and clothing are good bear-country safety precautions, and that they definitely improve the scenery.