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Wildlife biologist: Best response to a bear attack depends on ursine’s behavior

Odds of being attacked are 1 in 11 million
Janel Scharhag, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presented advice about the proper reaction to black bear attacks in a Zoom presentation on Thursday sponsored by Bear Smart Durango. (The Journal file)

For decades, black bear researcher Janel Scharhag said misinformation has gained wide circulation about the proper response to black bear and grizzly attacks.

She believed more accurate messages can and should be given to the public.

For years, people have inaccurately been told to play dead if attacked by grizzly bears, called brown bears in Alaska and Russia, and fight back if attacked by black bears.

“The message is more complicated,” she said. “It’s really easy to give generalities because people are going to respond to it. It’s a catchy phrase to say, ‘If it’s brown lie down, if it’s black fight back.’ People are going to remember that, and I think that’s why it’s stuck around so long.

“I think we can do better than that. I know we can do better than that,” she said. “We should be giving the best available advice, not the simplest.”

While giving advice about bear attacks, Scharhag noted they are relatively rare, averaging 11.7 attacks a year in the Lower 48 states.

Scharhag delivered her message as the third talk in a five-part online Zoom series presented by Bear Smart Durango. The series aims to give the public a better understanding of black bears, their practices and to reduce human-bear conflicts.

It’s not the species that determines how someone attacked by a bear should respond, she said.

Instead, it’s by knowing the bear’s behavior and responding appropriately that will maximize chances for survival in a bear attack.

Scharhag divided bear attacks into three different types – predatory attacks, food-motivated attacks and defensive attacks.

The best way to respond to attacks comes by knowing which type of attack a person is subject to and to respond appropriately, she said.

Predatory attacks

A telltale sign of a predatory attack is one in which a bear advances directly toward someone, and possibly circles or stalks someone even though the person has no attractants like food. The bear might be silent, not making huffing noises or jaw popping noises, which are associated with defensive attacks, she said.

Anyone subject to a predatory attack should react aggressively. Try to make yourself look bigger and make loud noises.

“Be the bigger, badder bear so to speak,” she said.

People subject to a predatory attack should throw rocks or downed wood at the bear.

As a general rule, Scharhag said everyone should carry bear spray while in black bear country. In the past, the predominant advice is bear spray should be used in grizzly country not black bear habitat.

“People don’t think of using bear spray with black bears,” she said. “I always carry bear spray in black bear habitat. If you are attacked fight back, and fight back with everything you’ve got, sticks, rocks, because if it truly is predatory, that bear might be hard to scare off.”

Food-motivated attacks

Food-motivated attacks obviously involve an attractant – the smell of a barbecue or garbage. Food-motivated attacks are related to predatory attacks, but often involve curious bears that are sometimes easy to scare off, she said.

Anyone subject to a food-motivated attack should make loud noises and do everything that is safe to ensure the bear does not get food, enter a structure or a vehicle.

Similar to predatory attacks, anyone subject to a food-motivated attack should make themselves look big, and throw rocks (not food). Again, the use of bear spray is a good idea.

If attacked in a food-motivated attack, people should fight back.

Defensive attack

A defensive attack typically stems from being too close to a bear and frequently involves a sow with cubs.

A defensive attack is characterized by the bear making huffing sounds and jaw popping sounds. The bear may slap at the ground and frequently makes bluff charges of 10 to 15 feet and then pulls off.

Defensive attacks are usually deadly with grizzly bears and can be quite dangerous with black bears, Scharhag said.

The first appropriate response to a defensive attack is to give the bear plenty of space, at least 50 yards (at least two school-bus lengths) and more like 100 yards if possible.

People who suspect they are victim of a defensive bear attack should slowly back away while facing the bear.

People involved in a defensive bear attack should talk to the bear calmly and use bear spray if necessary.

If attacked they should play dead lying flat on the ground on their stomach with their hands over their necks.

“If you are attacked then, the strategy is to play dead – black bear, brown bear it doesn’t matter the species. If you know it’s defensive, you want to make yourself not a threat,” she said. “The bear is attacking you because it’s reacting to a perceived threat. So you want to play dead, flat on your stomach, hands over your neck to protect vital organs.”

After the bear has left, it’s best to remain down in the protective position because if the bear remains in the area and sees its victim get up it will often attack again.

Scharhag said it’s best to remain down at least 15 minutes and up to half an hour after a bear has left the immediate area.

Scharhag’s recommendations about proper responses to bear attacks came from research for her master’s thesis, “Black Bear Attack Associations and Agency Risk Management,” earned in 2019 from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Scharhag earned her master’s while working in Shenandoah National Park from 2016 to 2019. At Shenandoah National Park, she managed human-bear issues and conflicts. Currently, she is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Hawaii.

In general, the No. 1 thing people can do to prevent a bear attack is to keep human food away from them, Scharhag said.

If you live, work or recreate in bear country, odds of being attacked by a bear are one in 11 million, she said.

“What I want to do here is increase understanding, not make us afraid,” she said. “There are thousands of human-bear interactions, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands – we really don’t know, I saw them at Shenandoah National Park – that don’t result in human injury.”


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