Refuge: be prepared, watch out for bears
Jason Oles knows a lot about bears. He has worked among Kodiak Brown Bears, Rocky Mountain Grizzly Bears, North Slope Polar Bears, and Kenai Peninsula Black Bears, in various national parks and wildlife refuges. Now a ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, he says there are certainly a few tips for living, working, and recreating among bears.
“For us, bear safety is a three-pronged approach,” he said. “It’s awareness, being aware of your surroundings, it’s respect for bears, when we get to bear habitat again, we’re not the biggest and baddest anymore, the top of the food chain, and that requires a mental shift, I think, for most people, and I hope that part of today’s discussion will help provide more of that third leg of the stool, and that’s is knowledge of bear behavior. “
Oles and Trails Manager Scott Slavik gave a bear preparation workshop at the Kenai Refuge on Tuesday. This summer there were a number of high-profile bear encounters across the state, including around the peninsula. There were two in June near Skilak Lake. Slavik says the number of bear encounters is not much higher than usual this summer, but people are increasingly aware of it.
Brown and black bears are not uncommon in the forests of the peninsula. There is a good chance that frequent hikers, cyclists and campers will encounter one at some point. Slavik says there are a number of ways to keep an encounter from turning negative, but a key part of it is just being aware.
“We want people to be in the shelter and enjoy it, without being afraid, don’t we? ” he said. “We want you to be aware, not complacent, but somewhere in this pretty, ‘I can do this, I can protect myself and keep the bears safe’ (place).”
Being aware means knowing where bears are likely to be, how they sound, and how to read the environment. Standing in a wide, open area, the chances of seeing a bear before surprising it are quite high. But in the tall grass in midsummer, near a salmon stream, people should pay close attention to the signs and sounds of a bear.
In many cases, with enough warning, it can be easier to just walk away from a bear if there is enough distance left and it doesn’t feel threatened. Oles recommended backing up with both feet on the ground to avoid tripping and accidentally triggering a bear’s predatory tendencies. He also recommended not to run away.
Having a deterrent handy is important as a second line of defense. Oles said it was a personal choice to carry a gun or bear spray, but one note is that bear spray can be deployed quickly while a pistol can take a long time to aim regularly.
“We are losing our fine motor skills,” he said. “That’s the reason we can’t take our bear spray out of our holsters and remove the safety. We can only do really big gross motor movements.”
Bear spray is made from a pepper extract, capsaicin. It is oily and stings a bear’s eyes and respiratory tract, and has been shown to be very effective when it can be deployed. That’s the trick, however; Slavik said in a number of bear encounters this summer, victims were unable to deploy their bear spray because it was out of range or they were not trained . He recommends wearing it in the same spot every time and having it easily within reach.
A spray can projects a cloud of spicy fog between people and the charging bears. The range varies by brand, but it can reach between 15 and 40 feet. It’s remarkably effective, especially when a bear breathes heavily while running, Oles says.
Bears can come close for other reasons as well, especially when they are curious teenagers. They can be curious, hungry or, in rare cases, predatory. Black bears have a more history of predation on humans than brown bears, although this is still not common, Oles said.
Making lots of noise during leisure time, traveling in groups, walking rather than running, and knowing how bears behave can help prevent negative encounters with bears. This saves people’s lives, as well as the lives of bears – depending on the situation, wildlife officers may stalk and euthanize a bear after a negative encounter with people.
Contact Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]