ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A basic rule on what to do when encountering a bear in the wilderness is so common, it’s long been a mantra: “If it’s brown, you lie down. If it’s black, you fight back.”
But there’s a caveat for run-ins with brown — or grizzly — bears. The idea is to play dead only after a grizzly has struck or is about to, not before, wildlife biologist Pat Owen said Tuesday, following an attack on a female hiker last week in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
“The right thing to do is not drop until that bear is practically on top of you,” said Owen.
The woman survived, but the bear attack Friday was only the latest one in the U.S. Just days before, a man was killed by a grizzly while mountain biking near Montana’s Glacier National Park. At least three other attacks have been reported this year.
Bear attacks are rare, although the chances of being injured in one multiply in the backcountry. For example, 45 people were injured by bears in Yellowstone National Park between 1980 and 2014 out of the nearly 100 million visitors to the park during that time.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
• The 28-year-old woman attacked in Denali was hiking a trail with two friends Friday evening when they saw the bear. A park official said the bear charged and the three immediately played dead. The bear bit and scratched the woman before walking away. The animal returned a few minutes later and one of the hikers threw rocks at it. Playing dead is appropriate when physical contact has happened or is imminent, Owen said, but when done prematurely, the bear can grow curious.
• Before the Friday attack in Denali, a large group of park visitors there encountered the same young grizzly. They bunched together, shouting and waving their arms until they scared it off. Park officials say that’s exactly what to do.
• It’s a good idea to make a lot of noise when traveling through bear territory to avoid the element of surprise, which is behind a good number of bear maulings. Around Alaska, it’s not unusual to hear hikers repeatedly calling out, “Hey, bear!” Some people clap their hands; some wear bells. The idea is to alert bears and avoid creeping up on them.
• Sows with cubs are especially sensitive to the presence of humans, so make sure you’re never caught between a mama bear and her young, experts say.
• Most of the time, nothing is going to happen if people take common precautions, such as traveling in groups, keeping dogs on leashes, carrying bear spray and being aware of their surroundings, noted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.
“Gosh, 99.999 percent of the time, nothing is going to happen,” he said Friday. “Most bears want to avoid you.”