When it comes to bears, the man of the hour is Dennie Hammer, the Information and Education Specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cody region. What makes him qualified to silence the “Every man for himself, it’s a bear!” scream whenever there’s a crunch around you while hiking is that Wyoming has the most grizzly (aka brown) bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. So Hammer’s “bear-dar” is fully functional, and now yours will be, too. We’re going to focus on black and grizzly bears, because that’s what Hammer knows best. They emerge from their dens in mid-March and early April.
•Hammer is in Wyoming, so he’ll talk Wyoming: “Black bears are found in every mountain range we have; they’re scattered throughout the state. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are mostly associated with those mountain ranges that pretty much touch the Yellowstone ecosystem. If you look at a map of Yellowstone National Park and at the different mountain ranges that connect with the park, it would not be uncommon to find grizzly bears in any of those ranges.”
•Where depends on the season and what they’re eating: When bears come out of their den in the spring, they’re all about the meat, hoping to find big game that died in the winter, such as elk, deer, and moose. As the snow recedes, bears start feeding on the green vegetation, following the snowline into the mountains. By midsummer, they’re feeding in meadows and grasses, looking for small mammals and insects.
•That’s right: insects. In fact, grizzly bears spend much of the summer eating army cutworm moths, found above timberline on very high talus slopes. The moths feed on plant nectar at night and seek shade under the talus rock during the day, where the grizzlies eat them by the hundreds of thousands.
•In the summer, bears are fairly high on the mountain (although you could still run into them at creek and river bottoms); in the fall, they move to lower elevations looking for whitebark pine and other available food. This is also the time of year in which they experience hyperphagia, when life becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet in an attempt to fatten up before entering the den again around mid-November. Near fall is when they also seek out berries and fruit-bearing plants.
•It’s rare that we get to talk about actual poop in Jp. Of course, pros like Hammer use the less-fun name, scat. Scenario: You’re hiking and smell death in the air and see very black poop/scat. That color means the bear’s probably been feeding mainly on meat. Don’t investigate the smell or follow the black-scat road, because bears have a habit of eating as much as they can, then making nature’s doggy bag: covering the carcass/kill, scratching up dust and needles and other things to hide it from other bears and predators, then sleeping nearby, with one eye open.
•This is important, as food is one of three key things that could put a bear on the defensive—protecting personal space and cubs are the other two. Note: Black bears typically are not as aggressive in defending those as grizzlies are. It’s sort of in the black bear’s DNA to often climb or run away from a threatening situation. Also, don’t believe that grizzlies can’t climb or run downhill. “They run sidehill, uphill, downhill; it doesn’t matter. They can sprint up to 35 mph,” explained Hammer.
•You’re hiking through bear country. Tip: Make some noise, especially during the day in the summer. Not constantly, or you’ll seem like a lunatic. Do it when you’re going through dark timber or north-facing slopes where there’s heavy timber; timber makes for cooler temps, and bears will sleep there. When you’re approaching the crest of a hill and can’t see the other side, make enough noise to let a bear know you’re there.
•Carry bear spray, but not inside your backpack. Rather, have it in a hip or chest holster where you can access it. But remember, it’s a deterrent, not a repellant. Don’t spray it on your tent, Jeep, or body. It will come out like a fog, in about a 6-7-foot circle, and penetrate the bear’s eyes, nose, and mouth and irritates the mucous membranes, which pretty much takes the bear’s mind off of you.
•Should you spray it the second you see a bear? No, because a bear will either run, fight, or bluff-charge, so you sort of have to wait. The latter is a “noncontact behavior,” explained Hammer, that bears, and more often grizzlies, use between each other to establish dominance. The bear’s head will be up, ears erect, and it’ll run with a stiff-legged gait, sort of bouncing toward you, and it might also slap the ground. With an actual charge, the bear will drop its head, flatten its ears, the hair on its back will stand up, and it’s going to be running, not hopping.
•Never run from a bear, whether you’ve stumbled upon it and it hasn’t yet seen you, or you’re in a charging scenario. “We recommend that if you’re 100 yards, back away slowly and go some other direction, preferably upwind so the bear can sense you. If you find yourself closer than 100 yards and the bear sees you, you need to stop, back away slowly, and talk in a soft, monotone voice,” Hammer said.
•Keep that deterrent in hand and put your arms in the air. And don’t stare at the bear; it might find that threatening. In fact, if you’re sporting reflective glasses, the bear might think you’ve got giant eyes, so take them off.
•It’s…not…working! The bear is coming! If it seems like it’s going to charge, or actually starts to, hit the spray trigger a couple times. Hopefully the cloud will force it to turn around and leave.
•It’s…not…working! The bear is coming! “I try to get away from the ‘play dead’ approach to this and instead call it ‘drop and cover,’” said Hammer. Lie flat on your stomach, fingers interlocked behind your neck to shield your neck vertebra. Here’s why a backpack is good: It will protect your back in this situation; bears primarily attack prey in the neck and back and they’ll do the same to you. Don’t throw your pack off when hitting the dirt.
•Delightful—the bear is now trying to roll you. Hammer advised to go with the flow of the roll, but then to get right back to the face-down/stomach position as quickly as possible to protect your heart and lungs. Know that none of this is a guarantee that you won’t be injured: “Bears are very strong animals; all they have are teeth and claws to defend themselves. They don’t just sit on you.”
•While you’re in this submissive position, the bear will probably figure out fairly quickly you’re not a threat and leave. But don’t immediately move around or get up, or it might think you’re still a threat and come back. Stay still and calm (right!) until you’re sure the bear has left. “People will say, ‘Well, how are you going to know that? Trust me, you will know,” Hammer said.
•One other thing: Never fight a grizzly bear, but you can try to fight off a black bear. Caveat: If either type reaches into your tent and attempts to pull you out, that’s predatory behavior and you should fight back—punch, kick, whatever it takes.
•To prevent bears from hanging out at your campsite, separate where you sleep from where you eat. Hammer said the recommended distance is 100 yards. Before you go into your tent, check pockets for leftover sandwiches or other food. You can have water in the tent, but unflavored. Eliminate food and odors (including deodorant and bug spray), in other words. If you discover a bear in your tent, make noise, yet let it find its way out on its own, and tell the rangers or game wardens you had a bear in camp.
•Know this as well: As we said earlier, bears go into meadows, where they look for roots and tubers, so if you find a great spot to camp but it looks like somebody’s already been there with a shovel, you might be on the heels of a bear.