Into the Depths of a Bear Den
Originally posted by Danielle Alling on
Words and photos by Wes Larson. Wes is a trained biologist who’s research focuses on bears in the wild... and he knows what he is doing. Follow Wes on Instagram @grizkid.
One thing I’ve learned in my few years as a bear biologist is that crawling into an occupied bear den isn’t something you can really prepare for. You can bring the right equipment, plan your approach, and take every precaution necessary to try to remain safe and keep the bear safe as well, but there are some mental hurdles that are hard to get over.
When you see the entrance to the den leading into a dark rock or earthen crevice, and you know a living, breathing bear is inside, part of your primitive brain kicks into gear and lets you know that you are making a bad decision. But wildlife experts who work with predators need to figure out a way to bridle that fear, while still being able to accomplish their field work. I had a trial by fire in early 2016.
That year I returned to Southern Utah to study black bears I had previously outfitted with GPS collars. As bears settle into their winter dens, biologists have an opportunity to visit those dens and check on the bears to make sure the collars have enough battery life to make it through another season. Black bears show a relative level of tolerance to intruders in their dens (a grizzly bear would kill you) but they can get pretty cranky and it’s important to get the bear sedated and worked on, then tucked back in as quickly as possible.
Hiking in 10-degree weather, myself, my brother, and an undergraduate student trudged up a mountain to follow the last known GPS location of the bear. When we found the entrance to the den, I broke out in a cold sweat. All the other dens I had seen so far were shallow enough that the bear could easily be sedated from outside of the entrance. This hole extended 80 feet into the darkness and was barely wide enough for me to fit in. As I lowered my head to shine my headlamp into the back of the hole, two glints of green light reflected back, almost too faint to see. The bear was back there, he was bigger than I remembered, and he was awake.
My team suggested we abandon the den, as I would have no way to get out in time should the bear decide to charge. But the collar on this bear was nearly out of battery. My brother crawled in behind me and as we approached the glowing green eyes he became understandably nervous. “Don’t do this,” he whispered over and over again. Finally I hissed at him to shut up, and his mantra changed to “You’re the bravest person I know” on repeat.
When I was within eight feet of the bear, I extended my syringe pole and sat with it near the bear for ten minutes, waiting for any sign that the bear was going to respond aggressively. When he finally put his head down, I decided to go for it and poked him in the meat of his shoulder, simultaneously holding my breath and waiting for him to charge. This deep in his den, bear spray would be useless: the bear would have nowhere to escape and may just become enraged from the stinging pepper. My only option would be to flatten out and hope he would run over top of me.
To my infinite relief, the bear hardly even noticed the injection and I slowly backcrawled my way out of the den, shaking from both adrenaline and relief. Two more doses were necessary to sedate the big bruin, and by the time the drugs finally kicked in he had walked out of the den and passed out under a nearby tree. We quickly replaced his collar and slid him back into the den--not an easy task with 350 pounds of limp bear weight.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My bursts of adrenaline didn’t fade until the next day. I can’t help but feel as though I will never be in a situation where I have to so completely face and suppress my natural fears again. I returned to the den later that fall with another student, and he couldn’t even bring himself to go inside the narrow sandstone hole, even without a bear inside. When most people enter a cave or crevice the idea of confronting a predator in that darkness will flit across their mind, and then they can dismiss it, as that kind of encounter is extremely unlikely. Crawling into that dark space knowing that a bear is waiting for you on the other end is a lesson in fear management, and an experience that I will never forget.
Bear Safety with Wesley Larson
Words and photos by Coalatree Ambassador Wesley Larson
I’m not an expert, not yet. But as a grad student/field researcher, I’ve been earning my stripes as a bear biologist in training for over four years now, and have had the opportunity to organize and carry out a number of different bear conservation and management studies. Most of my time in the field has been spent either in relative comfort with Utah black bears, or in frigid solitude with Alaska polar bears. More importantly, all of my work has been done under a leading bear biologist, Dr. Tom Smith. Tom has extensively studied human-bear interactions (in fact he is probably the foremost American expert on the subject), and has given me endless advice on how to best avoid conflicts with our generally unpredictable, sometimes grumpy, ursine research subjects. When it comes to bear safety information among outdoor enthusiasts, it seems as though just about everyone has read or heard differing advice on what to do when confronted with an aggressive bear. The following are some of the tips that I have heard from the proverbial horse’s mouth of bear safety. Take em or leave em…but you should take em.
1. KNOWING YOUR BEAR
Each of the North American bear species will generally behave very differently when it comes to interactions with humans. The good news (or bad news depending on how much you love bears) is that you likely only need to worry about conflicts with black bears if you are enjoying the great American outdoors. Wild populations of brown bears (Ursus arctos) or “grizzlies” only exist in Montana, Wyoming, and in some parts of Idaho and Washington. You just aren’t going to encounter them anywhere else in the lower 48. This FACT is often shocking to people who are certain they’ve spotted grizzlies in places like Colorado, Northern California or Utah, but it’s important to remember that black bears (Ursus americanus) are commonly brown, blonde, or cinnamon in color and can easily be confused with the rowdier and much more aggressive grizzly. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, unless you are in the Northern Rockies or Alaska, you aren’t going to be messing with grizzlies, but very likely will be in black bear country. Black bears are widespread and can be found throughout the western, eastern and southern United States.
The best way to know that you are in polar bear (Urus maritimus) country is that you can’t feel your fingers and your will to live is slowly being extinguished by the crushing, unrelenting cold.
All three North American bear species are naturally curious and will typically investigate anything that they see as a potential food item. Grizzlies are the most aggressive of the three and will often use large displays of power to discourage any potential competitors or threats. One of these shows of aggression, when used on a rival bear, can commonly lead to some minor injuries and likely some hurt feelings. Unfortunately for us, the same kind of interaction with a human can result in your head being knocked clean off. A large percentage of grizzly bear maulings can simply be chocked up to a surprise confrontation when the bear felt threatened and acted the same way it would act with another unwelcome bear or animal intruder. This variety of mauling will ordinarily only last seconds, but can do a devastating amount of damage to our relatively soft and fragile human bodies. Now, from time to time a grizzly will initiate a predatory attack on a human and actually eat that person, but those kinds of encounters are rare and the majority of brown bear attacks simply result from a human showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Black bears are much more commonly found in the United States, but they are far shyer and less aggressive than their brown bear cousins. Living primarily in forested areas, black bears are typically quick to slip into the brush long before you ever even spot them. However, conflicts do occur with black bears, and they often arise from people being careless with food and other attractants that a wandering black bear can’t pass up. Remember that your handful of candy or cliff bar has a larger number of calories than hours of browsing for berries, and bears simply will not turn down that kind of opportunity when it’s presented. In most cases, black bear maulings are the direct result of a hungry bear that is merely investigating what seems to be an easy meal, and you can drastically reduce your chances of black bear attack by simply doing your best to minimize any scents that you might be broadcasting into the outdoors and by keeping a clean camp with food properly stored. As with grizzlies, an occasional black bear will become predatory and view humans as a primary source of food; but again, these sorts of circumstances are exceedingly rare and black bears almost always have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them.
Unless you are a glutton for punishment and don’t care about your fingers and toes, you’re likely never going to see a polar bear in the wild. So we aren’t going to go into too much detail when it comes to ol’ Nanuk. That being said, polar bears are interested in a seal lunch and not much else and they are not the marauding man-eaters depicted in popular culture. However, polars are a huge, powerful, and curious animal that should definitely be treated with respect. The same rules that you would follow for both black bears and grizzlies should be kept in the Arctic realms.
2. HAVE A DETERRENT
While knowing your bear and avoiding unwanted encounters is essential, the absolute key to being safe in bear country is having some type of proven deterrent. Without this lifeline, you are effectively putting your life in the paws and jaws of an animal that may end up making a decision that leads to a really bad day for you. Being honest, it’s unlikely you are going to see a bear while in the outdoors, even if you are looking for one. All bear species do their best to avoid humans, especially where they are not protected, as we tend to shoot them. However, most people who have spent a decent amount of time hiking or camping in bear country will have at least a story or two about bruin run-ins. So it’s important that you are prepared, and being prepared means carrying bear spray.
Bear spray is without a doubt the most effective way to deter an aggressive or charging bear. I always have a can of bear spray on my hip when I’m in grizzly or polar bear country, and you’re taking a risk if you enter black bear habitat without it as well. Bear spray is simple to use, and when fired correctly will send a small cloud of burning hell 30 feet out from the can. The mindset of a bear will instantly change from attack to escape when it suddenly cannot breathe or see, much like you would expect with any human that takes a face-full of mace. Recent research by my mentor, Dr. Tom Smith, has shown bear spray to be more effective than firearms at deterring aggressive bears, and confrontations with bear spray are much less likely to result in injuries or death for both human and bear. In addition, but bear spray would definitely do the trick on any two-legged weirdos that you might meet in the deep woods.
Now a couple bear spray hints that might seem like common sense, but probably should be mentioned. First, when you buy your bear spray make sure to take it out of the package! You’re not going to have time to unwrap that clamshell plastic once the bear has decided it’s not ok with having you around. Second, you should always keep your spray on your hip or in your hand because you wont be able to dig through your pack and get out your spray before you have lost your opportunity to use it. Most bear charges start from around 30 feet or less, so you aren’t have much time to be ready with your spray. Keep it close and know how to use it.
A gun can be a very effective way to stop a charging or attacking bear. However, even the most steady-handed gunslinger might get a little shaky with 600 pounds of fur, claws and teeth rushing towards him at 30 mph. A poorly placed shot can get you in even more trouble than you started in, and a gun might be better used as a backup to your bear spray. Other good deterrents include electric fencing for campsites, and guns that shoot cracker or “screamer” shells.
3. BE PREPARED FOR AN ATTACK
As someone who is currently studying bears, I constantly get the question “what should I do in a bear attack?” The answer is simpler than what you might have read in different outdoor materials, and comes straight from Tom Smith, the de facto expert on the matter: You should group up, ready your deterrent, and use it if the bear comes too close. It’s as simple as that. Don’t worry about making yourself look bigger, or talking quietly to the bear. Don’t fall down into the fetal position. Don’t look for the closest tree to climb. Just get your bear spray ready and then use it if the bear gets too close! If the bear does make contact with you, is staying on top of you and you no longer have a deterrent option, then you will want to do your best to protect your vitals by crawling into the fetal position. But just remember, the second that you lay down on the ground and curl up, you are letting the bear determine what is going to be the outcome of your meeting. Now if you are being attacked by a black or polar bear, the attack is likely predatory and you will want to do your best to fight the bear off and getting into the fetal position is only going to give the bear an easier meal. But if you have bear spray and you use it correctly, it is almost certain that you won’t be put into that position. So buy some, and take it with you every single time!
A COUPLE OTHER HINTS THAT CAN HELP YOU AVOID INJURY:
- Bears almost never will attack groups of people that stay together, so be sure to group up and stand your ground if you confront an aggressive bear.
- Never run or even back away from a charging predator. This holds true for bears, as well as big cats and dogs.
- Make plenty of noise if you are in places where plants, corners or other visibility concerns might conceal a bear from you and you from a bear. Little bells on your walking stick are not going to do the trick.
4. APPRECIATE BEARS
Lastly and most importantly, don’t be irrationally afraid of bears. Some of the most important, humbling and life-changing wilderness experiences that I have had have been built around bear encounters in the wild. Not only are bears almost implausibly graceful and beautiful animals, but they also can remind us that we do not always own the top notch on the food chain. That feeling of submission to something bigger and more powerful in nature is a kind awareness that can potentially change your life and how you view your place in the world. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you let fear cheat you out of that kind of substantial wildlife experience. Just be safe and you’ll be ok.