Bears don't always cooperate. Despite our best efforts to bear-proof our homes, businesses, and communities, sometimes they show up anyways. Here's what you can do when it happens to you.
Secure it and they won't come
"Electric fences make for good bear neighbours." - Linda Masterson in Living with Bears (pg 97)
The best way to prevent an unpleasant bear encounter is to avoid them altogether. Ensure your home and property are bear-proof by responsibly managing all potential attractants. Consider electric fencing as a cost-effective alternative.
Don't get close!
"Even when bears are being fed, or feeding from birdfeeders, or panhandling from tourists, they are still bears so they will treat you like another bear. The problem is that bears are very physical with each other. Even though they may look and act like a big dog, a sudden miscommunication like trying to pet one may result in a sudden and unavoidable swat or bite. Bears, unlike dogs, take offense at being petted. Bears play by bear rules and know nothing of ours. Close contact between uniformed people and bears is a script for disaster. So the answer is straightforward: don't get close."
When it happens
Remain calm and ready your bear spray (or other deterrent). Try to figure out whether the bear is a grizzly or a black bear. Grizzly bears and black bears tend to behave differently, so it helps to know which species you're dealing with. (Click here to learn how to tell the difference.)
If possible, try to determine whether there are cubs present or whether the bear is defending an animal carcass or other food source. Females with cubs or bears defending food sources may appear to act aggressively as they defend their cubs and/or food.
Now that you know what you're dealing with, call your local wildlife officer and report what you've seen.
Close encounters of the bear kind
"Some bears become experts at extracting food from human habitats. They haven't necessarily lost their fear of humans as much as they have become skilled at observing our body language, a natural extension of the way they study each other. I once stood with a group of people watching a bear feeding from a bird feeder sixty feet away; people were talking, some had binoculars, and the bear couldn't have cared less. But when I stared directly at him and took one step in his direction, he took off." - Ben Kilham in Among the Bears (pg 239)
Always respect the bear's need for personal space. Do not approach it, even to get a photo, and give it as much room as possible.
There are lots of things you can do to deter a black bear from approaching or hanging around your property. But grizzly (brown) bears are an entirely different matter! Do not attempt to deter a grizzly bear on your own — get yourself to a safe location and call a conservation officer immediately. (Click here to learn how to tell the difference between a grizzly bear and a black bear.)
If you encounter a bear in your yard, stop what you are doing and stand your ground. Identify yourself by speaking in a calm, appeasing tone. Back away slowly. Walk, don't run, and keep your eye on the bear so you can see how it will react. In most cases, the bear will flee.
If you are sure the bear is a black bear, consider trying to move it out of the area. Ensure the bear has a clear and safe escape route with no people or obstacles in its way. Stand tall and look it directly in the eye. Yell at the bear and firmly tell it to leave: "Get out of here, bear!" Use any of a number of effective bear deterrents, from pots and pans to noisemakers, to help you.
Always keep a can of pepper spray ready (with the safety removed) in case the bear approaches too closely.
Dealing with a 'defensive' encounter
Sometimes a bear that feels threatened will 'act' aggressively to defend against a perceived threat. This is often the case with a mother bear with cubs, a bear defending a food source, or a surprise encounter. The closer you are to the bear when it becomes aware of you, the more likely it is to react defensively: it may pop its jaws or swat the ground with its front paw while blowing and snorting, and/or it may lunge or "bluff charge" toward you in an attempt to get you to leave.
In this situation, the bear doesn't want to fight any more that you do. It is simply trying to communicate that you are too close. Try to appear non-threatening by remaining still and calm. Ready your bear spray by removing the safety lock. Speak in an appeasing voice and back away, increasing your distance from the bear. Leave the area immediately.
Defensive responses that result in physical contact almost always involve grizzly bears surprised at close range, on a carcass or protecting young. The very few defensive attacks by black bears have been females protecting cubs (but these are very rare).
If a bear that is behaving defensively is intent on making contact, your first line of defence is always your bear spray. Point the nozzle just above the bear's head so that the spray falls into the bears eyes, nose and throat. When it is 20 to 30 feet away, give it a long blast. That should be enough to discourage it and send it in the other direction. (Click here to learn more about bear pepper spray.)
If the encounter was a surprise or it involves a mother bear with cubs, and the bear makes physical contact, fall to the ground and "play dead." Roll over onto your stomach and cover your neck and the back of your head with your hands. Keep your legs and elbows wide so the bear can't flip you over. When the attack stops, remain still and wait for the bear to leave. If an attack is prolonged or the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive and it is time to fight back (see next section).
If a bear defending a carcass or other food source is about to make contact, use your bear spray and leave the area right away. Do not play dead and do not act aggressively. Get as far away from the food cache as possible.
Repelling an aggressive or non-defensive bear
Occasionally, a bear will approach you in a non-defensive manner. It may just be curious. Perhaps it's a young adult bear that is simply testing its dominance. Or it is food conditioned and/or habituated. Very rarely, it may see you as potential prey.
In any event, talk to the bear in a firm voice. Get out of its way if you can, which may be all it wants. If the bear follows you and its attention is clearly directed at you, then stand your ground and prepare to use your deterrent. A bear that is initially curious or testing you may become predatory if you do not stand up to it.
Act aggressively. Look it straight in the eyes and let it know you will fight if attacked. Shout! Make yourself look as big as possible. Stamp your feet and take a step or two toward the bear. Threaten the bear with whatever is handy (stick, pole, bear spray). The more the bear persists, the more aggressive your response should be.
If the bear attacks, use your deterrent and fight for your life. Kick, punch or hit the bear with whatever weapon is available. Concentrate your attack on the face, eyes and nose. Fight any bear that attacks you in your building or tent.