Information about bears is often contradictory and confusing, leading to misconceptions about how bears will behave when they encounter humans. Realistically, the chance of a bear attacking and killing you is infinitesimal. While hunters kill around 30,000 black bears in North America each year, black bears only cause an average of one or two human fatalities annually. You are statistically more likely to be killed by your family pet than a wild bear.
To keep safe in bear country, you have to be able to separate fact and myth. Here are some of the most common fallacies about bears:
1. Bears have a great sense of smell, but terrible eyesight.
Bears can see just fine, and are drawn to movement. If you are within 150 metres of a bear that's facing your direction, it probably knows you're there. Bears don't always visibly react to what they see, which leads some people to mistakenly assume a bear hasn't noticed them.
2. That bear is looking at me and yawning, so I'm in no danger.
Yawning is a bear's way of showing it is beginning to feel stress, most likely because you are invading its personal space. Yawning, jaw-popping, salivating profusely and making 'huffing' noises are all signs that a bear is not happy.
3. Bears aren't very good at running downhill.
Bears are surprising quick and agile for their size. The belief that bears will trip over themselves if they pick up too much speed on an incline is a myth.
4. Never make eye contact with a bear - they consider it threatening.
When encountering a bear that has clearly seen you (and it's too late to sneak away unnoticed), you should stand your ground and observe its behaviour. This is hard to do if you have your eyes averted. Facing a bear lets it know you are not a pushover and are ready to fight if necessary. Yes, you would probably lose the fight, but the bear doesn't know this.
5. A gun is much better protection from an aggressive bear than pepper spray.
A 1999 study in Yellowstone showed that within the park boundaries, people who encountered aggressive bears and used pepper spray had less than a 10% chance of being injured. Just outside the park, those who used firearms instead for protection had close to a 50% chance of being injured. With the pepper spray group, injures were also less serious and the duration of attacks shorter.
6. Wearing jangling Christmas bells around your ankles will warn bears you're coming.
On a windy day, these bells are hard to hear. Also, in many areas bears do not associate bells with humans. In tests conducted in Alaska's Katmai National Park, it was discovered that most bears paid no attention whatsoever to energetically shaken bells.
7. If a bear charges you, climb a tree.
When two black bears fight, the loser often climbs a tree. The winner, if inclined, will shimmy up the tree to continue asserting dominance. Therefore, copying the behaviour of a submissive black bear is not a good escape plan. Grizzly bears are also more adept at tree climbing than most people think. Many an Alaskan hunter has been surprised to glance up and see a grizzly perched near the top of a spruce tree.
8. If a bear charges you, run away to safety.
Safety had better be very close by, because bears can cover open ground nearly twice as fast as humans. Running from bears is just as bad as running from German Shepherds or lions - it stimulates their natural chase instinct.
9. Bears are highly unpredictable animals.
Bears have their own individual personalities, but they are also creatures of habit. They feed on the same seasonal foods, visit the same fishing streams, use the same trails year after year and react to most situations in a very predictable way.
10. Menstruating women attract bears.
There has never been any evidence at all to support this theory, which originated in 1967 when two women were killed by grizzlies in separate attacks in Glacier National Park.
11. Bears are nocturnal.
Many people believe mountain lions live in the mountains by choice. In reality they have been driven into mountainous areas to escape human persecution. For the same reason, bears avoid strolling around during the day - that's when people are about. Bears can be active at any time of the day or night.
12. Bears can't break into your vehicle if you roll up the windows and lock the car.
Bears are clever. In some US parks, bears have developed the habit of climbing on top of vehicles and jumping up and down on them. They have learned that if they do this hard enough, the car roof's metal will bend just enough to pop out and break the windows.