‘Be bear aware’ is said often — but it needs to be


A recent item in the Park County Sheriff’s Department’s weekly log stated that a deputy was controlling traffic on the Chief Joseph Highway (Wyo. Highway 296) because of a bear sighting — and that he was making sure no one tried to pet the bears.

While that last part of the entry was apparently made tongue-in-cheek, it does serve as another reminder for everyone to “be bear aware” when engaging in outdoor activities.

While we hear “be bear aware” often here in northwest Wyoming, it is for very good reason. Park County and Yellowstone National Park are home to one of the United States’ largest populations of bears, both black bears and grizzlies.

While bears are amazing sights to behold — be it at Yellowstone, on the Chief Joseph Highway, on the North Fork or wherever — they are still wild animals and potentially very dangerous. A grizzly is strong enough to kill a human with just one swing of one of its paws and those paws can come with 6-inch long claws. And while smaller than a grizzly, black bears have killed more than two dozen people in the United States since 1997.

So what can you do to enjoy bear country while staying safe?

First of all, always bring bear spray along when heading outdoors. Bear spray is considered to be more effective at preventing bear attacks than using a firearm in many situations and it is also non-lethal. Of course, spray is not an option in all cases, such as when the wind is blowing away from a bear. Also, do not go alone on outdoor excursions such as hiking and camping. Go in groups of at least two or three people and make noise to alert the bears to stay away.

Speaking of camping, store food and other scented items in bear-proof containers. Many campsites have bear-proof lockers that foodstuffs and other items can be stored out of a bear’s reach, while several businesses sell bear-proof containers if you’re camping where there isn’t a bear-proof storage container on-site. Bears have more sensitive noses than a bloodhound, and the scent of food — or even toothpaste or deodorant — can bring a bear into your camp. 

Also, if you’re camping in the backcountry, store food at least 100 yards from your campsite to reduce the risk of a bear entering your camp. Finally, take your garbage with you; do not leave it where the bears can find it.

If you do see a bear while out and about, identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you’re a human. Stay still, but slowly wave your arms. Also, stay calm — bears generally do not want to attack; they want to be left alone. If the bear isn’t moving, move away slowly and sideways. Do not run or climb a tree; bears can easily outrun a human and can also climb trees.

Be especially wary if you see a sow (female bear) with cubs. Mother bears are much more likely to attack if they think you’re a danger to their cubs. In fact, 70 percent of fatal grizzly bear attacks involve sows with cubs.

Last but not least, being bear aware is not just for the good of people; it’s also for the good of the bears themselves. More than half a century ago, Ranger Smith did little more than yell at Yogi Bear when he stole “pic-a-nic” baskets from tourists at Jellystone Park (which was loosely inspired by Yellowstone). 

Today, that behavior would likely get Yogi euthanized. 

One of the biggest reasons that bear-proof food and trash storage is so important is because if a bear gets habituated to eating campers’ food or garbage, it can become a danger to people — which usually results in the bear being euthanized. And that’s not a good outcome for anyone.

Northwest Wyoming offers unparalleled outdoor opportunities and also great chances to see bears in their natural habitat. Just make sure to “be bear aware” for the good of all, humans and bears alike.