Quick hypothetical: what would you do if you’re attacked by a bear? Ideally, you want to have a weapon on yourself or at least a bear spray. You certainly do not want to get into a tango like what Leonardo did in The Revenant. Few have survived such close encounters. A quick Google search will tell you the damage a bear can do to a person.

Different species of bears require a different approach. If you’re confronted with a black bear, stand your ground. You want to make yourself look as big as possible and spread your arms and coat out. Make as much noise as possible with whatever tools you have at your disposal. It’s a lot like Poker – you bluff your way to victory. Except, in this case, defeat could mean very serious injuries.

But I won’t talk about black bears today. Instead, we will look at grizzly bears. Grizzly has a visible shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks. Grizzly also has a “dished” or concaved facial profile and larger claws compared to black bears. Finally, black bears have a flatter profile and longer ears. When startled, black bears tend to retreat to a tree whereas grizzlies can charge and attack. That means a grizzly is about 20 times more aggressive than a black bear.

Differentiating between the two is critical. For example, a common strategy you hear the most often is to play dead. It would work on grizzlies, but not black bears. If you try to play possum on a black bear, you might end up getting mauled instead. If you apply the same strategy for black bears when faced with a grizzly, you will get mauled.

If you have not been mauled by a bear before, I recommend you check out the story of one Mark Matheny. Long story short, he is a survivor of a grizzly bear attack. Some of his photos only showed the half-moon scars on his face, but the injuries he sustained are much worse. The puncture wounds on his chest and arms are only visible when he takes off his shirt. Worse still, there is a soft spot on his head where the bear’s canine tooth cracked his skull. He was this close to death.

This is the kind of risk many hunters have to face when the aspens in these bears’ territories turned to gold. Mama bears with cubs, in an attempt to protect their precious offspring, will certainly attack unwary hunters who wander too close. Dangerous encounters like this can also occur if bears are startled at close range if you stumbled into one that is guarding their kills, or during the mating season. To be fair bears usually keep to themselves unless provoked as humans are placed rather low in their menu.

Matheny was unlucky enough to meet 3 of those conditions during his bowhunting trip in Montana. He was too close to the bear. A bear’s personal space is about 55 yards, although some bears have charged from greater distances. The bear happened to be a sow with cubs in tow, lying next to a kill a while ago.

If you go out hunting with a gun, bears are at least alerted by your location and decide to stay out of your way. Even if they come your way, you have something to defend yourself. People who are out bowhunting do not have those benefits. During a season when bears are out in search of food, many hunters are at high risk. Having to use cow squealers and bugles make the whole situation worse as they attract both elks and bears to the area.

So, bowhunters have a few rules to minimize the risk. For one, they steer clear of grizzly habitat. It is also a good idea to avoid places where bears tend to feed such as berry patches, whitebark pine stands, and mountainsides that are filled with army cutworm moths. The buddy system also applies here. Bring a friend with you and watch each other’s back. Use a flashlight when walking out to the hunting area before dawn, and do not investigate a carcass.

Grizzlies also tend to hide in dense patches of cover during the October and November rifle seasons. In areas like spruce thickets close to boggy meadows, if you see a lot of excrement and tracks, eroded trails, digging sites, day beds, overturned rocks, and claw marks on trees, you should take Billy big steps in the opposite direction. This is not a place to have a picnic. The local landowners may also warn you of such occurrence, so heed their warning before heading out.

Bears are also known to be attracted to hunters’ kills. So after making your kill, separate the meat from the gut pile. You want to use a sheet of plastic to drag the gut pile or move the quarters away for at least 200 yards out. Also, hang the meat as high as possible. If you cannot hang your prize or must keep the carcass on the ground, at least leave it in an open space so you can see it from a vantage. Make sure to put up a handkerchief or T-shirt with a strong human scent nearby. When you come back to fetch your handiwork, approach from upwind and make lots of noise. It is usually safe to leave your meat out for a night, but not any longer.

But even with all these preparations, you are not guaranteed complete safety from bears. This is where you need to rehearse some responses that can save your life.

Run or Play Dead?

If you are lucky enough to see a grizzly at a distance, just keep out of sight and leave. Stay downwind if possible. However, if the bear also sees you, move away upwind so your scent drifts toward it. In a close encounter, back away slowly and talk in a quiet voice. The idea is to stand your ground, but also not being aggressive at the same time.

If the grizzly follows you, drop something from your pocket or pack to distract it, but do not drop food. Keep your backpack on for protection. Never crouch down or make eye contact as the grizzly bear sees it as an act of aggression.

If the grizzly decides to charge you, it just testing the water. Stand your ground. They are just bluffing and tend to veer away at the last moment. A charging grizzly can cover 40 feet in less than a second, so only scramble up a tree if you have time. Most grizzlies cannot climb. That said, there was a case of a photographer fallen victim to a sow although he was 20 feet up a pine tree. The bear just shinnied up the tree. So if it is a mama bear who is protecting her cubs, maybe going up the tree is not the best idea.

If the grizzly decides to have a go at you and press on the attack, and you do not have a weapon or a bear spray, then it is time to play dead. Lie on your stomach and place your hands behind your head and neck. Your backpack should be able to protect your back. Play possum and be patient.

The bear will investigate and see if you really are dead. It might roll you over, so keep rolling until you are on your stomach again. Many grizzlies only attack humans because they feel that humans are a threat to them. When they feel that the threat is gone, they will leave you alone. Wait for several minutes after the bear is gone before leaving.

Of course, laying still and letting a bear poke and prod you is an unenviable position. It is a frightening experience. Many people think that carrying a weapon with them would make them feel safer, and I am inclined to agree. However, this also comes with some risks.

Fighting a Bear

Using a firearm against a charging bear carries grave risk. For one, you are giving up the possibility of playing dead. Given their speed, you hardly have time for more than a snap shot. A well-aimed shot is a luxury exclusive to trained shooters in such a situation.

Another problem is that, as mentioned before, the bear might only be bluff-charging you. But when you shoot it, it will go on the attack. If you must shoot to protect yourself, go for the chest, neck, or shoulders. Unfortunately, bears are also protected by wildlife officers. So you will need to prove to them that the bear really meant business. Usually, some scratch or tooth marks would be sufficient, but how risky is it to put yourself in such a situation to prove a point?

A safer option for both you and the bear is aerosol pepper spray. All park rangers in the grizzly country have some with them. It is light, compact, and carries enough stopping power to stop a charging bear. Anyone who had been pepper-sprayed before such as the law enforcement will tell you that getting one in the face will make you drop whatever you are doing in an instant.

The same goes for grizzlies. In fact, Mark Matheny only survived the attack because his hunting partner dumped the entire content of a pepper spray into the face of the bear that was attacking him. Matheny now has his own brand of pepper spray, but he also says that it is better to be cautious than having to use the pepper spray.

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