TEN GOLDEN RULES OF BEAR VIEWING
Stephen F. Stringham, PhD
Director, Bear Viewing Association
If you learn nothing else about safe viewing, you should learn by heart these Golden Rules – ten ways of “doing onto bears as you would have them do onto you”. If you practice these rules, you can greatly increase your chances of enjoyably watching bears hour after hour, day after day, year after year, with minimal risk to yourself and negligible impact on the animals.
There isn’t space here to do more than introduce some basic ideas. For a detailed explanation of each Golden Rule, consult the Bear Viewing Association’s book the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual. Techniques of negotiating close encounters are explained in When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? All BVA books and videos are available through its website website www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info.
1. BE PREPARED
Make a habit of carrying everything you need for safe viewing, so that seizing chance opportunities won’t put you in excessive danger. At minimum carry pepper spray and a cell/sat phone.
2. AVOID BEARS WHEN AND WHERE YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO COPE WITH THEM
Be prepared for encounters from the moment you enter bear habitat . The place you disembark could be near a natural feeding site; or bears might be waiting for people, hoping someone will treat them to snacks.
3. VIEW FROM A BEAR-PROOF LOCATION UNLESS YOU CAN COPE WITH ENCOUNTERS
You are least accessible if you arrive and leave by vehicle and never step outside while viewing. You may also face little risk while viewing from an improved observatory such as a tower. Unimproved observatories are more risky. Worst of all is wandering freely across bear habitat, bushwhacking where visibility is poor, where wind or water noises mask any sounds you make, and where bears don’t expect you.
4. REMAIN WITH AT LEAST FIVE OTHER PEOPLE
Tight groups of at least 4-6 people have been nearly immune from bear attack.
5.VIEW ONLY TRUSTING, RESPECTFUL BEARS
Viewing distrustful or disrespectful bears should be left to experts, or at least to groups guided by an expert. With all bears, act so as to increase trust and respect, while neutralizing their interest in people.
The mere fact that a bear trusts you does not mean that you can trust it. That depends on ursine self-restraint, which is best assured if the bruins respect people – if they expect us to retaliate if they provoke us.
Trust reduces risk of defensive attack – the most common cause of serious or fatal maulings by grizzly/brown bears, but almost never by blackie. Respect reduces risk of offensive (bullying or predatory) attack – which is about twice as likely with a grizzly bear as with a black bear.
A bear is “acclimated” only when it both trusts and respects people.
6. AVOID TUNNEL VISION AND SURPRISE ENCOUNTERS
Pay attention to everything happening around you. Don’t blunder into bears or let them blunder into you.
7. BE WARY, SENSITIVE, COOPERATIVE AND ADAPTABLE
Keep a close watch on nearby bears. Monitor their body language for clues to changes in mood or intentions. Adapt quickly. Remain calm and confident, not timid; be belligerent only when necessary. Use alpha attitude to deter aggression, not to provoke it.
8.DON’T CROWD BEARS OR TRESPASS ON THEIR TURF
Never crowd a bear, even to get an extraordinary photograph! If you approach a bear, do so on the open so that the bear can monitor your approach long before it would feel crowded. That gives the bear time to adjust to your presence and to signal whether you are stressing it. If and when a bear starts appearing nervous, quit advancing. Be especially wary of mothers with cubs or with any bear feeding on a large animal (e.g., deer) carcass.
If you are on foot far from any refuge, stay at least 300 yards from any polar bear or Interior grizzly, and at least 150 yards from non-acclimated coastal brown or black bear from central Alaska southwards. Acclimated brown and black bears in these regions can usually be safely viewed from within 100 yards if you are part of a tightly-knit group or are with an expert in bear behavior and safety.
9.DON’T SMELL OR ACT LIKE FOOD; DON’T COMPETE WITH BEARS FOR FOOD;
DON’T FEED BEARS OR TOUCH THEM
10. DON’T DISTURB BEARS OR FELLOW VIEWERS
People watch bears for a variety of reasons. Some simply enjoy watching bruins and learning about their natural history, behavior, and ecology. Others want to photograph bears – which provides a means for people worldwide to vicariously share the viewing experience of these lucky few.
People also seek viewing encounters to experience a sense of acceptance by the animals, spiritual kinship with them, and/or the thrill of skirting danger. Each of those goals is legitimate to the extent that it can be achieved with minimal risk to people and with minimal impact on the bears or their habitat.
We who enjoy viewing bears or who make our living helping others view bears, are responsible for conserving these opportunities for future generations.
TEN GOLDEN RULES OF BEAR VIEWING