Letter To The Editor: Should Bear Encounter Guidelines Be Amended?

Los Alamos

First let me send my best wishes to the gentleman who recently suffered a bear attack. Have a full and speedy recovery!

I am writing to ask the people at Fish and Game, the Wildlife Center, and any other bear experts, if the guidelines for bear encounters need to be amended. I understand the reasoning behind the guidance for meeting a bear that says: “Don’t run; try to make yourself look bigger; back away slowly,” but I wonder if these are the best instructions when encountering a bear with a cub. After all the bear is likely to already be bigger than the human and normally does not attack only because there is no advantage to the bear.

The best bet for the bear is just to get out of the human’s way. Most bears I have encountered, just want to be left alone and run away as soon as they see a human. Bear bells are a very good investment as bears can be unpredictable when surprised, however, if surprised my experience is that they usually run away even more quickly. 

This changes if they have a cub. A few years ago I was running on the road behind the water tank on West Jemez Road. There is a steep grade and cut into a cliff face just before the plateau area on that road. I didn’t have a bear bell that day and I could not see what was on the plateau ahead until I got to the top, where I startled a bear and her two cubs. The cubs were perhaps 15 feet from me and mama bear was a bit farther away, about 25 feet. The cubs scattered, one to the left and one to the right. When mama bear saw me, she roared and charged at me. I realized that all she really wanted was to get me away from her cubs. I turned and ran away for all I was worth.

I don’t know how far mama bear followed me as I did not look back for sometime, but I think she stopped chasing me as soon as she saw that I got the message and got away from her cubs. Bears can run much faster than humans so if she wanted to, she could have caught me. She was a beautiful bear with thick black fur with a white streak around the neck. I did not get much of a look at the cubs, but they seemed to be smart, healthy little guys. I am very glad none of us was hurt.

So my question is, shouldn’t the guidelines be changed to advise people that if a mother bear and cub(s) are encountered to retreat as quickly as possible? I think the guidance to back away slowly might put people in danger as a mama bear may not have patience with a slow retreat. If she sees a threat to her cub(s), she will do whatever is necessary to end the threat even though she might be injured. She really isn’t going to leave her cubs alone and won’t chase a person very far so long as they continue to move away. After the human is gone, she will move the family out of the way, so a human should be able to traverse the area in 15 minutes or so with lots of noise warning to the bears. 

None of this is to suggest in any way that the gentleman who was recently injured by the bear did anything wrong. I don’t know what happened. I just wonder if some different advice may be warranted for those who might meet a bear under circumstances similar to those of the bear encounter I described above.