Human beings have always had a fascination with big predators. They are a part of our culture. We visit them in zoos where we’re safe. They show up as mascots of sports teams. Their images are plastered on t-shirts, posters, and hats. We can’t get enough of them. Predators even show up as the protagonists in some of our most popular movies and books. Jaws was a best seller. The Lion King may be the most popular Disney movie of all time, and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park is probably more recognizable than any of the Kardashians. This utter captivation by things that can eat us probably stems from some ancient memory. Back when men lived in caves and feared those things hunting them out there in the darkness. While many of those old predators are gone, the ones that are still here maintain their hold over us, none more so than the king of bruins…the Grizzly Bear.
Often standing as tall as eight feet and weighing well over 800lbs, grizzlies are the last true monsters on earth. What’s ironic is that they live in truly beautiful places that people want to visit and even live. This makes it inevitable really. When you spend a lot of time in bear country, eventually you’re going to see a bear. Hopefully it’s as a moving brown smudge on a distant hillside you can only see through binoculars. You hope not to see it as a raging juggernaut tearing through the brush towards you from 20 feet. Because that might be the last thing you ever see.
Admittedly there is a certain thrill that comes from spending time in grizzly country. Knowing that you aren’t the top dog in the woods. Having the realization that an afternoon’s hike could lead to you becoming a quick lunch sort of adds a spice to day to day life. When I moved to Southwestern Montana, grizzlies were a big part of the appeal. Being a guide and spending the entirety of my workday outside, I quickly had more than a few encounters. I’ve run into grizzlies on the river and on trails I’ve been hiking. I even had a young bear come onto my front porch in the middle of the night once. Throughout these encounters I quickly learned that grizzly bears aren’t the mindless killing machines they are often portrayed as in popular media. In fact grizzlies are some of the coolest and most beautiful creatures in the world.
People’s true fear of grizzly bears comes from the inherent fear of all animals, the fear of being eaten. In reality, grizzlies live on a mostly vegetarian diet of roots, berries, and grasses, only eating meat when the opportunity presents itself. Even then, grizzlies act mostly as scavengers, cleaning up animals that have died of natural causes or after other hunters such as wolves have already taken their share. That being said, grizzlies are not above running down and killing an elk or deer themselves. They can run up to 30mph in short bursts and have the strength and power to kill almost instantly. That’s where our real fear comes from. The idea of an 800lb charging beast bent on destruction. And while it does happen, the fact is bear attacks are incredibly rare and can be completely avoided if you take the proper precautions while in bear country.
Bears generally avoid man. They’re just as apt to run from us as we are from them. Attacks most often occur when a bear is surprised. Wandering through the mountains on a gentle hike, you come around a corner and BOOM there’s a bear! Your best way to avoid these encounters is simply letting the bear know you’re coming by making noise as you go through the woods. Talking, yelling, and even wearing a bell are the best ways to defend yourself against a surprise encounter. I personally prefer to sing when out in bear country, finding that my rendition of Steve Earl’s Galway Girl keeps all wildlife well away from me. The second most common instance of bear attack is when sow grizzlies are defending their cubs. While cute and cuddly, bear cubs are to be avoided at all times because the mother is close by and she will defend any perceived threat to her babies with a ferocious attack. If you see a bear cub in the woods, no matter how much you want to adopt it and give it a jar of honey, get the hell away from it.
The absolute best way to avoid a dangerous encounter with a grizzly is to be “Bear Aware.” Be cautious with food, keeping it in scent proof containers and disposing of garbage well away from trails and camps. Look for signs of bears as you move through the forest, such as claw marks on trees that let you know you’re in a bears territory. Other things such as tracks, and scat can let you know a bear is around. Grizzly bears also have a very distinct scent. It’s something like a combination of wet dog and rotten meat. If I’m heading into an area and I smell that, I immediately leave the area.
Sometimes however, no matter how cautious you are, a grizzly attack can still occur. It’s an unfortunate risk of being in bear country. So keeping that in mind, I recommend going into bear country armed against attack. And the best weapon against an attacking grizzly is bear mace. This isn’t the same stuff your mom carries in her purse for walking to her car at night. This stuff comes in a big pressurized can that has a range of twenty feet or more and will stop a charging bear in its tracks 99% of the time. Remember though it should only be used in an emergency. Never go out looking to prove how big your balls are by trying to spray a bear. That’s a great way to get killed.
About now, some people might be saying “Hey now I don’t need no sissy pepper spray…I got a gun.” While it is true that a gun can be a good defense against a grizzly, it’s not my first choice. This is really because grizzlies don’t know what it means to be shot. By that I mean, as a human, if I take a .22 bullet to the leg, the shock and realization of being shot will likely cause me to curl up in a ball on the ground and start sucking my thumb. It doesn’t work that way with a grizzly. They aren’t really afraid of anything and feeling pain will just enrage them. Shooting a bear and not killing it instantly will more than likely cause it to attack more aggressively.
So if you have to shoot one, you want a gun big enough to put a bear down fast. A 12 gauge shotgun loaded with slugs is probably the most effective weapon one can use. However shotguns are cumbersome to carry and can be difficult to get into action quickly, and you’ll need to be quick. A handgun or a “hand cannon” since you’ll need a big round like a .44 or larger to stop a grizzly, is more practical. But if you’re going to carry one, it better be a gun you’ve practiced with a lot. The recoil on big handguns can really throw off accuracy, and if you miss or wound a grizzly bear, iT may be better to shoot yourself and save a drawn out mauling. Again firearms are a last resort for me, and if given the choice of bear spray or a sidearm, I’m going for bear spray every time.
The truth is Grizzly Bears are beautiful creatures and while they should be treated with respect, they are nothing to be feared. They are a symbol of the wild. A part of a place we go to find our souls and remember a time in the world before things like cities, cellphones, Alexa, and dabbing took up most of our attention. Grizzlies are one of the last reminders we have of the past and of what’s truly important. They need to be respected and preserved for future generations visiting and living in bear country.
Feature image courtesy of the National Park Service