Safety in Bear Country

Black and brown/grizzly bears live almost everywhere in Alaska that you pursue hunting and other outdoor activities. Not surprisingly, in many areas the activities you engage in while hunting, such as moving stealthily through the brush, blending in with your surroundings, and handling, transporting and storing meat will raise your level of risk for a bear encounter. This risk always exists, but you can help minimize some of it through wise decision-making.

In most cases, bears usually either avoid people or try to bluff their way out of an uncomfortable situation. Generally, the only time they attack is when they feel threatened. The perceived threat could be to their cubs, food source or cache, or to their personal space, especially if they are injured. When threatened, a bear will continue to fight until it feels the threat is neutralized, or it sees a way to escape. Most bear attacks occur when a human or bear surprises the other at close range, or when a bear is defending an animal carcass it has claimed. The best way to avoid conflict and help reduce your level of risk with bears in the wild is to remember a few simple rules.

Learn About Bears and Their Behavior

Educate yourself about bears. Learn about where they live and what they like to eat during the time of year you will be in the field. When you are afield, stay alert for fresh bear tracks and droppings. Avoid hunting alone. Unless you are actually hunting for bears, try to avoid obvious bear feeding trails and resting areas, such as near streams and lakes when spawning fish are abundant.

Be on Full Alert

If a bear hears or sees you coming in its direction, the bear will almost always move away from you. You will likely never see or hear that bear. If you do encounter a bear that hasn’t detected you, leave the area without disturbing it. Unless you are hunting for one, never purposefully approach a bear.

When stalking game, be very alert to the possibility of surprising a bear. If you do surprise one, or you see a bear that then moves toward you, talk calmly and loudly and wave your arms above your head. If your hunting partner is close by, stand side-by-side to make yourselves look larger. Firing a rifle may frighten a bear, but don’t count on it. Do not turn your back and run: This may cause the bear to mistake you for an animal to be chased and caught. Instead, you should leave or back away from a kill area or cubs with an expressed sense of determination: Standing your ground at an occupied kill site or between a sow and her cubs is not a good idea.

If a bear suddenly and aggressively attacks you, lay on your stomach with feet spread apart and hands clasped behind your head and neck. Be silent. Do not move or make any noise until you are absolutely certain the bear has left. This may seem like an eternity, but you cannot risk being re-attacked. Even if it is departing, the bear could look back at you to see if the perceived danger is still active.

You may wish to carry a can of “bear spray.” Bear spray is easy to use and has proven to be effective in stopping bear attacks or minimizing injuries when used properly at close range on bears. Carrying a sidearm is another option that can be effective, but only if the bearer is highly proficient with the weapon.

Immediately Remove Game Meat

Far more bear conflicts arise once you have downed a big game animal. Remember, in most cases you will be packing out your animal a piece at a time. That means multiple trips to and from the kill site and increased risk of encountering a bear.

You should immediately field dress a game animal after the kill. If possible, avoid opening the gut cavity until after you have salvaged all other edible meat. Removing the hide first and avoiding opening the gut cavity will help limit odors. Be alert for bears that may be drawn to the kill site and be sure to move the meat away from brushy areas as soon as you can. Try to pack all the meat out in one load. If this is not feasible, place the remaining meat in game bags and hang them from a tree, or cache them in an open area at least 100 yards from the kill site. Leave the gut pile and excess bones or carcass for bears. Liberally flag the area, including all possible approaches to the kill site, with biodegradable material to warn other hunters. You may wish to place a tall stick in the gut pile and flag it at the top. This will give you a visual indication of anything that has disturbed the gut pile as you approach the site for subsequent loads of meat. Approach flagged areas cautiously and be on the lookout for bears. Use flagging tape sparingly elsewhere on your hunt so as not to confuse the issue. Remove flagging tape on your last trip out.

When you are packing out game meat and finished hunting for the day, talk loudly, sing, and make lots of noise to announce your presence to any bear in the area. If you come back to your cache for a load of meat and a bear has claimed it, do not try to drive the bear away. The meat is probably already soiled, and trying to scare off a feeding bear is likely to provoke an attack. Alaska State Regulations prohibit killing a bear to retrieve hunter-killed game (see Defense of Life or Property [DLP] in the regulations). Also remember your bag limit: If a bear takes your game meat, you are not entitled to take another animal to replace the one you “lost.” Bag limits apply even if a bear takes your game meat.

Tips When Bringing Game Meat into Camp

Once you pack your meat back, store it a substantial distance from camp. Stash blood-soaked clothing in a plastic bag at the same location. A good rule of thumb for distance is to locate your meat storage area the maximum distance away from camp that the site is visible but in which you could make an effective response to an arriving bear. If possible, hang the meat in trees at least 15 feet above the ground. In many parts of Alaska that is not possible, so you may have to figure out alternative storage methods.

A variety of portable electric fences are available to protect one’s camping area as well as the meat storage area. Similarly, you can help protect your camp and meat using detection devices ranging from the classic pots-on-a-string, to commercial motion detectors, or tripwire-electronic alarm systems. Many hunter-pilots use electric fences around their airplanes.

Whatever you do, avoid dragging a freshly killed game animal into camp. This leaves a scent trail for bears to follow. If you field dress an animal and have blood on your hands or clothes, be sure to wash thoroughly and change clothes if possible before you enter your sleeping quarters or sleeping bag. Do not leave blood-soaked clothes in your tent; store them in a plastic bag with your meat. Never trim hides or meat around camp; the scraps will attract scavenging bears long after you leave. To deter a bear in camp, make loud noises, yell at the bear, and bang pots and pans together to try driving the bear off.

Killing a Bear in Defense of Life or Property (DLP)

Under Alaska State Regulations, “you may kill game animals in defense of your life or property if you did not provoke an attack or cause a problem by negligently leaving human food, animal food or garbage in a manner that attracts wildlife and if you have done everything else you can to protect your life and property. . . . The meat of a game animal you have legally taken becomes your property, but you may not kill another wild animal such as a bear to protect the meat unless the meat is necessary for your livelihood or survival” (emphasis added). This is a very strict standard, and one that is typically not the case for recreational hunters. This means that, if you get meat back to camp and a bear takes the meat while in camp, you may be cited if you kill the bear raiding your meat cache and try to claim it as a DLP killing. Be sure you read and understand the section of the hunting regulations book called “Emergency Taking of Game.” Although it is against regulations to kill a bear in order to save your meat, you can still kill a bear during a hunt for another species -- if you have a hunting license and appropriate permits but did not bait it in. Download the Defense of Life or Property Report Form (PDF 114 kB).

Basic Camping Precautions

Don’t camp in an area or near trails that are being frequented by bears (e.g., along salmon streams), and be meticulous about your sanitation and storage practices. Bears make their living with their noses; they can easily find spilled, discarded, or buried food or garbage. Cook and eat well downwind from your sleeping tent, wash the dishes, burn the trash and, as noted above, keep bloodstained clothing where you’ve stored your meat. Minimize odors by storing food and unwashed cooking utensils in clean airtight containers. If possible, hang food out of a bear’s reach.

Remember that other hunters or outdoor enthusiasts may use your hunting area or campsite after you do. It is the ethical responsibility of any hunter who wounds a bear (e.g., in a DLP situation) to make a strong effort to find and kill the bear, and if the hunter has made a good faith effort but the wounded bear escapes, to notify other hunters in the area as well as ADF&G and Department of Public Safety/Alaska Wildlife Trooper personnel.

Also, when you depart your camping area, make sure it is at least as clean as when you got there. Paper and other combustibles can be burned daily, but clean up any unburned material immediately. Garbage, food, and beverage cans should be stored in airtight containers and brought back to town for disposal.

Analysis of a Bear Attack

If you hunt deer on Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound, or Admiralty, Baranof, or Chichagof islands in Southeast, you will be hunting in the presence of brown bears. Many hunters never see a bear, and those who do usually see them headed in the opposite direction. Once in a while, though, things can go terribly wrong.

The following incident is a re-creation of a bear attack near Kodiak Island. This information has been pieced together by examining the evidence and interviewing the victim’s hunting partners. Analyze this incident based on the bear safety rules above.

The man, an experienced deer hunter, was hunting alone on the slopes of a mountain. The slopes were covered with high grass separated by strips of dense alder thickets and spruce trees — great hiding places for the abundant black-tailed deer and bears. About noon, the hunter spotted a deer and killed it with a single shot. Rather than pack the deer down the mountain and back to camp, the hunter decided to continue hunting. He tied a piece of toilet paper to a nearby bush marking the kill spot, and then continued to hunt that afternoon. While the man hunted, a large male brown bear smelled the deer carcass. The hungry bear quickly found the deer and began to feed.

As the afternoon shadows grew longer, the hunter returned to the kill site. It was hard to see the deer carcass because of high grass and brush around the site. As the hunter approached the area the bear rushed from the carcass and attacked the man. The startled hunter shot the bear, wounding it in the shoulder. As the hunter attempted to reload for another shot, the bear knocked him down, throwing the rifle 40 feet away. The bear bit the man in the head and grabbed him by the hips with his powerful jaws before breaking off the attack and retreating into the brush. The hunter was able to move away from the attack site, however the man died of severe injuries and hypothermia before searchers found him.

What could or should this hunter have done to prevent this tragic accident?

This hunter did not follow basic bear safety rules. He should not have been hunting alone in brown bear country. After killing the deer, he should have field dressed the deer, and immediately packed it out. If the hunter could not pack out the entire animal in one trip, he should have moved the remaining meat to an open area, well away from the gut pile. Upon returning, if he found the carcass had been moved he should have left the area as quickly as possible in the direction he came.