Bears: Tips From A Controversial Expert

Filed under: Camping 

Bears. They are big, strong, wild animals, and sometimes, they freak us out. But should they?

Bear Rogers
Editor’s note: This article is brought to you by SABRE, manufacturer of Frontiersman bear spray. The interviewed expert has no affiliation with the brand.

Probably not, according to Dr. Lynn Rogers (pictured above). He is a biologist and researcher who has spent 48 years studying black, grizzly and polar bears around the world.

We spoke with Rogers to learn what is — and isn’t — important to consider when sharing the woods with bruins.

(Editor’s note: Rogers is a controversial figure in Minnesota for his belief — contrary to many authorities — that feeding bears during research is not necessarily bad. We are not opening that can of worms; instead this article focuses on Rogers’ experience to share wisdom gleaned over decades with the animals.)

GearJunkie: Tell us about your career in bear research.

Rogers: I have a PhD in ecology and behavioral biology from the University of Minnesota. As I got into bear research, the old methods raised more questions than answers. You have to see the bears that you are studying. You can’t just put a radio collar on them and follow their locations. So I started using Jane Goodall’s techniques of observation, and that’s when I really started learning about bears.

What is the first piece of advice you’d give someone spending time in bear country?

Bears are not the animals we’ve always been taught. In a camping situation, don’t encourage them to come to your campsite. Use a bear-proof food container; they get no reward then. Another option is to hang food up. I’ve never really had problems with bears in a campsite.

As far as deterrents go, when should people consider carrying bear spray?

Bear Spray is good. I’m biased, because I published the test results in a peer-reviewed journal the first time. I thought, there must be a better way than shooting bears.

Biologists were discussing the best caliber to carry with to avoid being killed by bears. As biologists, we shouldn’t be thinking like that. We should think, “how can we deter a bear.”

sabre-frontiersman-bear-spray
This article is sponsored by SABRE, maker of Frontiersman Bear Spray; the interviewed expert has no affiliation with the brand

When I suggested [bear spray], others said, well, who’s going to test it? I said I thought it would work. If skunks got killed every time they squirted they wouldn’t have evolved.

What I found is, bears don’t get mad, they just go away. If people are worried about bears, it’s something they can do. One drop [or spray] in a bear’s eye, and they want to go somewhere else.

What are some general rules any outdoors-person should know?

What most advice sounds like is “you’ve gotta do this or you’ll be killed.” That advice doesn’t do anything good for bears. People have done everything, all over the board, but attacks are very rare no matter what.

black bear
Black bear at Yellowstone National Park; photo by Pat Gaines

Most of the attacks by bears are defensive and don’t do a lot of harm to a person. The rare predatory attacks are just unexplainable. I think there’s a rare gene that manifests one in a million black bears, who knows. In that situation, if you have bear spray, that would do the trick.

Black bear peaks from behind a tree; photo by Bess Sadler
Black bear peaks from behind a tree; photo by Bess Sadler

How can you safely observe bears in the wild?

What we found from our research is that, as bears began to trust us — it wasn’t that they liked us — we were insignificant, so bears went about their business and ignored us. If they’re not worried about you, you aren’t a danger, they ignore you.

It is fear, just like dog bites, that causes them to attack. In this community where I am studying bears now, people have been hand-feeding bears for more than 50 years. The nusince complaints are 80 percent below the state-wide average. People here, they see a bear, and it’s not a problem. Nothing to worry about.

If you see a bear in the woods and want to observe, to watch, just be quiet and don’t move. If you want it to go, say “Hi, I’m a human,” and watch it run or just go about its business.

Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear in Alaska; photo by Doug Brown

What is the difference between grizzlies and black bears when it comes to personal safety?

Grizzly bears are much more defensive, black bears are much more likely to run. If you put the numbers together, grizzly bears are 26 times more dangerous per capita than black bears.

Other behavioral differences?

Grizzlies evolved in open country, no trees to climb. Black bears evolved in the forest and trees were their escape route. Grizzly cubs run away or to their mother for protection. Black bear cubs run to trees, and mom runs away.

I don’t know of anyone killed by a black bear defending her cubs, but about 70 percent of people killed by grizzlies are by mothers defending their cubs.

What’s the best way to keep from startling a bear? Is that something to worry about?

That would be more important with a grizzly bear. If they are used to people and you startle them, it’s not a big deal; they realize it’s just a person. If they aren’t used to people, they may be more defensive.

Evolving next to other powerful predators (sabertooth lion, short faced bears, dire wolves), black bears’ instinct is to run first, ask questions later.

What should you do when a bear charges? Is it the same for grizzlies and black bears?

It comes down to this: It doesn’t matter what you do, attacks are rare no matter what. The thing I’ve always heard is “don’t run from a bear, it could trigger a predatory response.” But I took to asking the people who say and write that, can you give me a “for instance.” I have yet to get one.

What I DO hear is that “I was out in the woods and ran into a bear. I ran one way and the bear ran the other.”

My natural thing to do is to speak gently and back away slowly out of respect for the bear. It’s a nice thing to do. With a black bear, if you act aggressive, I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t run. If you run yourself, that’s the story I’m always hearing.

One example: A lady had a bear following her. She laid down and played dead. The bear sniffed her and went on. It just happened to be going the same direction.

Photo by Stephen Mattucci
Photo by Stephen Mattucci

If you’re in a tent at night and a bear comes into your campsite, what should you do?

I’ve never had this happen, so I might not be the best source. If I had bear spray, I’d make a little crack in the door and give him a little shot so he’d move along. If it’s in grizzly country, I wouldn’t go rushing or storming out of the tent!

If a bear comes into a camp, and it can see you… they are looking at the demeanor of the people. If you have a group of people, get them together. I’ve never seen a bear that would stand up to a stampede.

Is there ever a time when a firearm is a better choice than bear spray?

Tom Smith did a study of that. The spray had a better result than firearms. Bear spray was more certain to avoid contact and any problems. With spray, there’s no question of, did you hit the bear in a vital place, or the bullet wasn’t enough to stop it…. With spray, the bear thinks, “whoa, I don’t want this!”

This article is brought to you by SABRE.

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