Thomas S. Smith (BS ’82), professor of plant and wildlife sciences, didn’t choose bears. Katmai National Park in Alaska chose him. Bears are the focal species at Katmai, where Smith once spent summers as the park’s biologist. He recently published a paper on the best defense against bear attacks, and he has a plan for bear safety that may surprise you.
Q: How might those in bear country best avoid bear attacks?
A: (1) The simplest advice is never go into bear country without a deterrent. We’re talking firearms, bear spray, or pyrotechnics; your natural abilities are not a deterrent. (2) Hike with two or more people. My research shows groups of two or more are attacked far less. (3) Make noise appropriately. If you’re coming to a place where visibility is poor, clap your hands and shout periodically. (4) Store food safely. If you have your car, keep food and scraps in your vehicle at night. Otherwise, food has to be in a bear-resistant container or hung 100 yards away from your camp, 10 feet high, and 5 feet from a tree trunk. If you are in the backcountry, keep your meals easily prepared and dispose of scraps into moving water. If people follow this advice, most will never be that close to a bear.
Q: Why do bears typically attack?
A: Surprise is the single largest motivator; you simply surprise them and they neutralize a perceived threat. Another very small group of bears know you’re around and decidedly close the distance.
Q: What do you do if you directly confront a bear?
A: Never back up. Running or backing down says, “I’m submissive.” Always stand your ground and have a deterrent ready.
Q: What is the best deterrent?
A: Bear spray. The benefit of bear spray over a firearm is that a can of bear spray is light, the trigger slips easily onto your finger, and it only has two steps: point and shoot. Popular culture says it doesn’t work; that’s why this paper’s very important. (In a recently published paper, “Efficiency of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska,” Smith notes that bear spray was effective in halting 92 percent of bear attacks in studied incidents.)