Staying Safe in Bear Country
Black bear attacks are extraordinarily rare though many hundreds of thousands of people live, work and recreate annually in black bear country throughout Washington. In 2015, there were about 7 million people living in Washington State but fewer than 10 total bear attacks have ever been recorded here. The only known bear-caused human fatality in this State occurred more than 40 years ago. Attitude surveys of outdoor recreationists and sports hunters reveal that in fact, these people feel that bear sightings are far more likely to enhance one’s wilderness experience than to spoil it.
Visit our Tips for Coexistence page to learn about preventing human-bear conflicts; remember that it is always good to be prepared to know what to do during a potential encounter. Keep in mind that the vast majority of black bears quickly leave the moment they discover a human is near. Bear (and other large carnivore) human-detection senses are generally far better than our own bear-detection senses. Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray is an option for peace-of-mind while recreating in black bear country, although most wildlife biologists and experienced backcountry users rarely bother because of the extremely low incidence of negative black bear encounters. Nevertheless, if you recreate in bear country with your dogs – which can attract cougar or bear attention – or anytime you visit grizzly bear country, carrying bear spray within immediate reach is very prudent. Remember, there is no fool-proof way of dealing with a bear encounter: every bear, like every human, is an individual and each encounter is different. Bears are extraordinarily intelligent and adaptable and knowing how to interpret their behavior and how to act responsibly is part of the pleasure of sharing our environment with wild bears.
Bear Body Language
Black bears are amazingly powerful, fast, resourceful and intelligent wild animals. Always be aware of this. In spite of their abilities and potential to cause great harm to us, they are incredibly tolerant of, and cautious around humans. This is an essential survival mechanism for them because wild bears which are aggressive or become too comfortable with humans are nearly always killed. In the unusual event that you may encounter or surprise a bear which has not already sensed you and fled, or a bear which has habituated to human-supplied food sources (typically household garbage containers left outside), a bear’s body language can help you determine its mood. Bears may stand on hind legs or approach a short distance to get a better view, but these actions are not normal signs of aggression: the bear may not have identified you as a person and may be unable to smell or hear you from a distance. In general, bears show agitation by swaying their heads, huffing, popping their jaws, blowing and snorting, or clacking their teeth. Lowered head and laid-back ears also indicate aggression.
What To Do When Confronted by a Bear:
Should you suddenly surprise a black bear, remain calm and do not run. This is as true with any large predator as it is for an aggressive neighborhood dog!
- Speak clearly and loudly so the bear can immediately identify you as human– it doesn’t matter what you say! “Scram! Get Away! Drop Those Jelly Beans! If you are carrying bear spray, pull it out quickly and prepare to use it.
- In the past, it was suggested that you avoid direct eye contact with a bear or other large predator during an encounter in order to not provoke an attack. Recent scientific studies and analysis of past encounters (2014) indicate that there is no downside to direct eye contact. You want to keep the animal in view at all times. Direct eye contact does not appear to provoke aggression and serves to project your own dominance over the animal.
- A bear may charge a short distance in order to buy time or attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact. If you have bear spray, use it as instructed under the Bear Spray section of our website – see below.
- Use of Bear Spray –Watch the Video Here
- In the extremely unlikely event that a black bear actually makes contact with you fight back immediately and forcefully. You may sustain injuries, but past incidents show that only the most determined black bears will continue an attack when you fight back forcefully. (However, in the case of attack by a grizzly bear, you do not attempt to fight back should the animal charge and make contact with you. Please refer to our section on grizzly bear safety ( link coming soon).
Additional Resources for Staying Safe in Bear Country
- Watch our Bear Safety Public Service Announcement
- See our Bear Safe Brochure
- Learn more about Bear Spray versus Bullets
- For additional information about properly avoiding unwanted bear encounters, read Dr. Stephen Herrero’s “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” and listen to the interview with Dr. Herrero posted on The Bear Smart Society website.
- To learn more about staying safe and living in grizzly bear country, consider ordering the following videos provided by the Safety in Bear Country Society (SIBCS). SIBCS is made up of a number of world-renowned bear experts who have worked in collaboration with the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA)to create a series of videos about safety in bear country. All three videos can be ordered through Distribution Access, information below.
- Links to the main messages and scripts for ‘Staying Safe in Bear Country’, ‘Working in Bear Country’ and ‘Living in Bear Country’ are provided below (these files can be downloaded and printed for your convenience)
If you have seen a grizzly bear
There are several options if you think you have seen a grizzly bear, but quick reporting is critical – please use whichever option is most convenient. If possible, please contact each of the organizations below.
- Call the wolf-bear hotline: 1-888-WOLF-BEAR (US Fish and Wildlife Service, Olympia)
- Email WWO staff & relevant partners.
- WA or ID Patrol or Ranger Stations (see links below)
Please be as specific as possible in your message about the location and time of the observation.
- What exactly did you see (e.g. a single bear, family group, a grizzly bear plant dig, a carcass)?
- Let us know if you took photographs or measurements.
- What made you think that it was a grizzly bear or grizzly bear field sign?
- Remember to give your full name and telephone number.
If you need to report an incident
In case of an emergency, call 911
Visit the Products page to see our Bear Safety brochure. In cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this brochure is also available in a Spanish language version.