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Respect, Not Fear

Staying safe in bear country

Published in the June 2022 Issue Published online: Jul 01, 2022 Discover Idaho Falls: Parks and Recreation, East Idaho Outdoors, Outdoors Gregg Losinski
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ONE OF THE BENEFITS OF LIVING IN A PLACE LIKE IDAHO FALLS IS THE EASE OF ACCESS TO THE OUTDOORS.

Depending on your interests, a short drive in just about any direction puts you where the fun begins. One thing that is important to remember is that we are not alone in the woods and that a little precaution goes a long way. 

The vital thing to keep in mind is that we don’t need to be afraid of nature, but we sure as heck better not forget to respect it.

There are all kinds of things in nature that we need to be smart about, but here we are going to focus on one of the biggest fears that many people have. 

Idaho is bear country. 

Most people are aware we have both black and grizzly bears, but they aren’t sure how many and where they are found. Basically, pretty much all of Idaho is black bear country. For decades we have legally harvested around 2,000 black bears annually. Somewhat surprisingly, our black bear population estimate has actually grown over the last 20 years from approximately 20,000 bears to at least 30,000 bears. Imagine what the population would look like if they hadn’t been hunted!

Brown or grizzly bears have more limited distribution and are far fewer in number.

Roughly anywhere north of the Clearwater River is potentially home to brown bears. In the southern part of our state, you could also now expect to bump into a grizzly anywhere in the Island Park area and many parts to the south. 

Mountain bikers and hikers on the CaribouTarghee need to always be aware that they are in bear country.

People who recreate in the wild don’t need to be afraid if they follow a few simple guidelines. The most important thing is to make noise! Bears and other wildlife don’t generally want to mess with humans. A little noise helps to alert the animals of your presence. Many problems with bears occur because the animal is surprised by humans while it is watching its young or protecting a food cache. Very few attacks are predatory in nature, and to date, no one in Idaho has ever been killed by a grizzly or a black bear. Every year we have a few attacks, but fortunately no fatalities so far.

Aside from making noise, it is also a good idea to travel in groups. 

Solo hikers have a higher likelihood of having a negative encounter with a grizzly bear. Of course, either species of bears should be avoided if it is with cubs or protecting a food source like a deer carcass. Bears can be active at any time, but most incidents that have occurred are either just after sunrise or just before sunset.

Bears just do what they need to survive and generally don’t seek humans out. How we behave can have a huge impact on what bears will do. If we are sloppy and leave food and garbage scattered around a campsite then we are just inviting trouble. Bears are very tuned in to smells, so bringing sweet-smelling things like lotions or even toothpaste into a tent can arouse interest from a curious bruin.

Bears are like humans in that they like to take the path of least resistance. This means that the same trails we like to hike and mountain bike on are also the same trails bears like to use to get around the forest.

If we hike and talk or sing this will generally alert a bear to our presence and they will move along. When we come silently whooshing down the trail on a mountain bike, it is easy to catch a bear off guard. Bikers have been injured from literal runins with bears and unfortunately, some people have even been killed. This means that in areas of thick brush or timber it’s not a bad idea to have a bell or horn on your handlebars to give a little advance notice to Yogi and Boo Boo.

If you do end up in a close-encounter situation it is important to remain calm and never run or try to climb a tree! You can’t outrun a bear and even a grizzly can climb better than most people. Just slowly back out of the area. If the bear charges, then you need to make the important decision about what species of bear it is. Black bears can be deterred by yelling, throwing rocks, or as a last resort punching and kicking. They are physically stronger than us but psychologically as a species can be intimidated. Grizzlies on the other hand know that they are stronger and don’t suffer fools lightly.

The best thing to do if a grizzly is about to make contact is to lie face down with your legs splayed out and protect the back of your neck with your hands. Once a threat to a grizzly is neutralized, they may bite and shake the victim, but rarely kill.

 Anytime you are in bear country it is a good idea to carry bear spray. All jokes aside, it really does work. Many people feel safer trusting in a gun, but research shows that in nearly half the cases where firearms were used, that the person was still injured. When bear spray has been used the number injured is under 10 percent. Our instincts want to tell us that guns should be more effective, but in a reaction situation, bear spray has proven to be the better tool. The other big plus is that a bear deterred by bear spray is not permanently injured, but one that is only wounded by gunfire could become a problem for someone else.

Some folks even carry small air horns to help alert bears in areas of thick brush.

The woods are full of all kinds of things that can cause us grief, injury, and even death if we are careless. This is no different than our everyday city life. The key is to have situational awareness. Respect, not fear is a good all-purpose motto.

For more information on bear safety, visit the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee at www.igbconline.org. •

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