What do you do if you come across a bear out on the trail? Mountain biking is perhaps the most dangerous of the forms of recreating in bear country. I think very few of us actually consider this, myself included until two years ago.
This article isn’t meant to instill fear or make you question whether to explore new places. In fact, the purpose is the opposite: to enlighten you about these awesome animals and how to coexist in their territory. I’ll also clear up some common myths, discuss preparations, and how to respond in an encounter.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you continue, understand that bears are complex and fascinating creatures. Because of this, specific behavior of any given bear at any given time can be unpredictable. However, by applying the knowledge that you’ll acquire in this article, you should increase your margin of safety in bear country.
What Are My Qualifications?
I haven’t always been the most “bear aware” person, but in working with and around wildlife as my career path, I’ve become rather enthusiastic on the topic.
Anchorage, Alaska, 2010:
My first “bear country” riding experience was quite uneducated. I never once thought about what I’d do in an encounter. I was living and working in Anchorage. My only mode of transportation was a bicycle loaned to me–no helmet, no repair tools, and definitely no bear spray or bells. I mostly rode the bike paths through greenbelts around town. I recall a news article about a wildlife camera catching a brown bear sow and three cubs walking down Rover’s Run, a trail that had just one month earlier been the location of a bear attack that a man survived.
In one of my last exploratory rides in Anchorage, I discovered some dirt trails winding through the trees. I hadn’t gone very far from town when I came across a trail to the right — a trail signed “Rover’s Run,” and a photo of the sow and cubs spotted just days ago. Oncoming trail users were riding, running, and walking with bells, dogs, and friends. I was by myself, no helmet, and no bear spray. I opted to turn back into town.
Driggs, Idaho, 2014:
I had ridden in bear country many times in Idaho prior, but I still had not considered what I would do in an encounter. It wasn’t until I lived in the Teton Valley/Jackson Hole area that I became aware. It may have partly been a result of the coinciding experience of working with captive bears that I initially moved here for, but I now take riding in bear country more seriously than I did three years ago.
This past summer (2015), I not only biked, but lived and worked with the United States Forest Service in bear country. At the recreational area I worked at, I routinely talked to visitors about being safe in bear country. Additionally, I gave a pre-race talk about biking in bear country to the participants of Jay P’s Gravel Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho.
Understanding Lingo: Encounters Versus Conflicts
This is something you should know before continuing into the rest of this article. When I refer to an encounter, it means that you saw the bear and the bear likely saw you. In fact, make sure the bear sees you — I’ll get to that more in a bit.
A conflict is anything that goes beyond the encounter: A standoff. A charge. An attack.
Understanding Bears: Identification, Behavior, Habitats, and Seasons
Black and brown bears don’t always hold true to their descriptions — sometimes they can be a mix of a few colors. Brown bears can be blonde or even blackish, while black bears can be brown. Instead, look for the distinctive hump between a brown bear’s shoulder blades. Black bears have a higher rump. Tracks can be easily identified by shap, and the distance between the claw and foot. A black bear print (below) has a small gap between the claws and foot, while the space is greater for a brown bear print (above).
Bears are not always the most aware animals. They’re curious. They get distracted. And they startle easily. So don’t assume that they’ll see or hear you first. Bears are also not territorial and thus, tolerate being around another. Because of this, they can also become habituated to human presence, though they still require a “buffer zone.” When you enter into that space, you’ve forced the bear to react in one of two ways: retreat or defend.
Though brown and black bears habitats do cross over, black bears typically prefer wooded areas, while brown bears prefer meadows and tundra plains.
There are times of the year you want to be more on guard and cautious. To simplify it: food and babies. Anytime there are cubs involved, you are dealing with a much more serious encounter. Spring and fall, when bears are coming out of and going into hibernation, are both times to have a heightened awareness of food sources around you: carcasses, berry patches, etc. You don’t want a bear to feel like you’re trying to take their food. Fall time is when bears can be very desperate to get as many calories before going into hibernation.
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