Reacting to a Bear Encounter

A grizzly sow and cub on the boardwalk near Old Faithful
From the backcountry to the boardwalks: all of Yellowstone is bear habitat. This picture of a  grizzly sow and cub was taken near Old Faithful. Prepare for bear encounters no matter where you go.

NPS / Jim Peaco

 

Knowledge and understanding of bears and bear behavior can help decrease the chances of bear encounters and diffuse aggressive encounters when they occur. If you haven’t already, review the best practices for hiking and camping in bear country, as well as tips for viewing roadside bears in Yellowstone.

Distant Bears

If a bear doesn't see you, keep out of sight and detour as far as possible behind and downwind of the bear. If the bear sees you, retreat slowly and leave the area. If possible, slowly walk upwind to let your scent reach the bear. Regardless of the distance, never approach the bear. If a bear stands up on two legs, it’s probably trying to gather information about you rather than being aggressive. Don't panic: just slowly back away.

Surprise Encounters

If the bear clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that you are too close and are making it nervous. Heed this warning and slowly back away. Do not drop to the ground and “play dead.” Do not run, shout, or make sudden movements: you don't want to startle the bear. Running may trigger a chase response in the bear and you can't outrun a bear. Bears in Yellowstone chase down elk calves all the time. You do not want to look like a slow elk calf.

Slowly putting distance between yourself and the bear may defuse the situation. Draw your bear spray from the holster, remove the safety tab, and prepare to use it if the bear charges.

In most cases, climbing a tree is a poor decision. Bears can climb trees (especially if there is something up the tree that the bear wants). Running to a tree or frantically climbing a tree may provoke a bear to chase you. People have been pulled from trees before they can get high enough to get away. Also, when was the last time you climbed a tree? It's probably harder than you remember.

Charging Bears

If a bear charges you after a surprise encounter, stay still and stand your ground. Most of the time, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away. If you run, you're likely to trigger a chase response from the bear. If have bear spray, this is the time to use it. Start spraying the charging bear when it is about 60 feet away or less.

If the bear continues to charge, it's important not to drop to the ground and "play dead" until the bear makes contact, or the second before the bear makes contact. Drop to the ground; keep your pack on to protect your back. Lie on your stomach and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still and stay silent to convince the bear that you are not a threat.

After the bear leaves, wait several minutes before moving. Listen and look around cautiously before you get up to make certain the bear is no longer nearby. If the bear is gone, get up and walk (don't run) out of the area. Remember, a sow grizzly needs time to gather up her cubs which may have climbed trees or hidden in nearby brush. If you get up too soon, she may attack again.

During a surprise encounter where the bear is reacting defensively, you should not fight back. Fighting back will only prolong the attack and will likely result in more serious injuries. Since 1970, people who played dead when attacked by a bear during a surprise encounter in Yellowstone received only minor injuries 75% of the time. However, those that fought back during surprise encounters received very severe injuries 80% of the time.

Curious or Predatory Bears

Unlike a defensive bear that charges with its head low and ears laid back, a curious or predatory bear may slowly but persistently approach with its head up and ears erect. It may not use threat displays like huffing, blowing, barking, jaw-popping, hop charging, ground slapping, or bluff charging.

If you're approached by a curious or predatory bear, grab your stuff, especially food, and move to the safety of a car or building. Do not run. Food can also be safety stored in bear boxes. If retreat is not an option, group up with other people and yell at the bear: it may retreat once it realizes you're human. If you have bear spray, get ready to use it. If the bear is moving slowly, you’ll have to wait until it’s 20 to 30 feet away before deploying bear spray.

If you’re attacked by a curious or predatory bear, fight back using any available weapon (bear spray, rocks, sticks) to stop the bear's aggression. 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.

Report Conflicts

If you’re involved in a conflict with a bear, regardless of how minor, contact us or report it to a park ranger as soon as possible. If cell service is available, dial 911. The lives of other people, and the bear, may depend on it.

 

Last updated: September 15, 2017

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