Understanding the Bear's Mindset


A grizzly lounges in the Mud Volcano area.



One of your best defenses against bear attack is your brain. Your reaction to an encounter with a bear should be based on the bear's behavior and the cause of that behavior. Therefore, it is important that you "understand the bear's mindset" as much as possible. A good knowledge and understanding of bears, bear behavior, bear aggression, bear food habits, and bear ecology can empower you to decrease the chances of having encounters with bears, and to diffuse aggressive encounters when they occur.

There are two main types of bear attacks on people: defensive, and predatory. You should respond very differently to each type of attack, therefore you must be able to tell the difference between a defensive attack and a predatory attack.

Defensive Attacks & Aggression
Defensive attacks are the most common cause of bear-inflicted human injury. In almost all bear attacks, bears are reacting defensively to a perceived threat to themselves, their cubs, or a coveted food source during a surprise encounter with people. In these incidents, the bear wants to neutralize the threat (you), gather up their cubs (if present), and leave. In Yellowstone National Park the chances of being injured by a bear in a defensive attack, are very low, approximately 1 in 3 million.

Recognizing Defensive Aggression
If you are attacked after any sudden, surprise encounter with a bear, you can assume that it is a defensive attack. If the bear hop- charges toward you, clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or rushes a few steps towards you and slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that it is nervous about your presence and that you are too close. Heed this warning and back away. If these warning signs precede an attack, you can assume that the attack is defensive in nature. In a defensive attack, the bear will charge toward you with its ears laid back. A bear that rears up onto its hind legs is trying to gather more information through scent, sight, and sound to determine what you are and what your intentions are. To get a better scent, the bear may circle down-wind of you.

How To React To Defensive Attacks
Once a bear that is displaying defensive aggression has made physical contact with you, you should be passive and play dead to diffuse the situation and minimize injury.

Predatory Attacks
Many people think that the reason for most bear attacks is that the bear wants to kill and eat you. In reality this is almost never true! In the vast majority of confrontations between bears and people, the bear is only trying to defend itself or its cubs from a perceived threat (you), and the bear's reaction is entirely defensive. Actual predatory attacks do occasionally occur, but are extremely rare. In Yellowstone National Park the chances of being involved in a predatory bear attack are extremely low. Behaviorally, it can be difficult to distinguish a predatory bear from a bear that is just curious or food conditioned.

Recognizing Predatory Attacks
Predatory bears don't give warning signals or use threat displays or vocalize, there is no huffing, blowing, barking, jaw-popping, hop charging, ground slapping, or bluff charging during a predatory attack. Predatory bears ears will be erect and forward (not laid back). Predatory bears will be intensely interested in their victim, visually locked on. Predatory bears will keep bearing in on you.

How To React To Predatory Attacks
During a predatory attack you should be aggressive and fight back using any available weapon (bear spray, rocks, sticks) to stop the aggression by the bear. Fight back as if your life depends on it, because it does. Predatory attacks usually persist until the bear is scared away, overpowered, injured, or killed.

Safety Tip
Play dead if a defensive bear makes contact; always fight back against a predatory bear.

Did You Know?