Respecting bears and what to do in the event of a bear attack

Living the Wild Life

With all the bear attacks, including two women being killed recently by bears, my editor suggested I write about bears and being safe around them. I have a healthy respect for bears, cow moose and bull elk and have had more close encounters with the moose and elk than I have with bears.

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My respect for bears basically comes from two experiences that I had when I was much younger. The first came when I was just a kid and I was in a car with some relatives at the West Yellowstone garbage dump watching the bears beg for food. A large grizzly approached our car and we fed it slices of bread through an open window. The smell of its breath was so revolting that I never wanted to be that close to a bear again.

The other experience happened on June 7, 1967. I was working for Walker Brothers in Island Park running a pack of six horses delivering “goop” for sprayers to spray trees infected by pine beetles. Late in the day while preparing to make my last trip into the timber, I was informed that one of my bosses, Byrle Walker, and two kids had been attacked by a grizzly bear while working a short distance from where I was delivering the cans of goop.

Byrle, a teacher at Bonneville High School, had been mauled by the female bear that took the doctor at Ashton Hospital four hours to put over 350 stitches to close his wounds. The doctor ran out of suture material and had to use fishing line to finish the job. Walker was an awful sight when I visited him a couple of days later. Both of the boys, Kristen Sparks and Jim Black, had been bitten by the bear after it left Walker.

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This week, I visited the 88-year-old Walker at his home in Idaho Falls and we spent a couple of hours reminiscing and laughing about some of his bear experiences.

“It sure was tough for me to play dead as I screamed each of the 11 times that he bit me,” Walker commented. “The first thing you should do when you are attacked by a bear is to pray – quickly. I thought I was a goner when it grabbed my head between its jaws.”

After that attack, I bought a .357 Mag pistol to carry and instead of sleeping in a tent, I started sleeping in my car. Even today when I am in bear country, I sleep in a vehicle.

The United States Forest Service and every national park website has “bear aware” recommendations. First on all the lists are “DO NOT RUN” when approached by a bear. It may trigger an attack. Walker tried running from the bear and was “caught in three steps when the bear bowled me over, sat on me and started tearing me apart.”

Other recommendations are to remain calm, hike in groups and if approached by a bear, pick up the small children, continue facing the bear while talking calmly and if it continues toward you “make yourself look large by raising you hands and arms above your head.”

Food storage is critical in bear country. Food and other items like toothpaste and shampoo should be stored where bears cannot get them and they should NEVER be stored in your sleeping tent or bag.

One of the most import things to take with you in bear country is bear spray – and know how to use it. But remember it should be used as the last resort.

black bear schiess

The National Park Service recommends that you know the difference between black and grizzly bears because each one requires a different response in an attack. If the attack is from a grizzly, you should play dead, lay flat on your stomach and spread your legs so it is difficult to turn you over and you should remain calm. Walker’s screaming may have intensified the attack “but that is tough to do when the bear is biting you.”

In a black bear attack, the park service recommends that “you should not play dead as you should fight as hard as you can by concentrating kicks and blows to the animal’s face and muzzle.”

In the story written by Walker about his bear experiences, he concludes with these observations.

“Grizzly bears can climb trees; you cannot throw rocks and sticks at a bear and expect him to move away if he doesn’t want to. When a bear is sitting on your back, chewing, it is impossible to lay still. You cannot outrun a bear no matter what — uphill, downhill or on level ground. Hitting a grizzly in the nose does not make him run away.”

With more bears and humans using traditional bear country, confrontations will continue to increase. Try to make sure that you are not a party to one of those encounters. In your hiking, jogging, or camping in bear country, be safe and be aware of the wild animals that you may be trespassing on their home turf.

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.

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