Bear Awareness keeps Humans and Bears safe

Almost two weeks ago an incident at Douthat State Park in Bath County drew statewide attention to the need for sharing the woods comfortably with bears. A woman hiking with her family received a bite, and this could leave other park goers wondering just how safe it is to walk in the mountains during this wonderful season to be outside. The answer remains, “as safe as your own common sense”. Jamie Sajeki, coordinator of the Bear Project for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, spoke with Allegheny Mountain Radio to offer some tips on what to do IF, in the very unlikely situation, you happen to meet a bear on the trail.

“Any time when people are out and they encounter a bear, there’s just some basic information that would be helpful for people to know. And obviously the first would be, if the bear isn’t aware of you, you can just move away without attracting attention to yourself. If the bear is aware of you, then the best thing to do is obviously stay calm, talk in a low voice. You can slowly wave your arms, back away, but it’s important point is NOT to run.”

Even though we think of bears as lumbering, they can move quickly, and climb very well. The smartest thing is for you and the bear to part ways as soon as possible.

Again, Jamie Sajeki,

“So then it kind of goes towards, if a bear is aware of you, and begins to approach you, you want to stand your ground. Again, it’s very important that you don’t run, and at that point you can raise your arms, talk louder. You can shout at the bear and back away. And then if the bear still pursues, kind of following you, then you want to shout and act aggressively, and really intimidate that bear, so that it knows that you are human. You want to keep your arms out and make yourself look big, and shout and just intimidate the animal.”

It may seem strange to think of yourself as intimidating the bear, but truthfully the bear would rather not have come near to you to begin with. With a very highly acute sense of smell, they can be curious about any food around a campsite, but unless they’re hungry, won’t stay in the area long.

Again Jamie Sajeki,

“Bears really have this innate wariness of people. And they (that is people) are predators. Their main source of mortality is hunters in this state. So people, whether you are big or small or a child, because you are a person, that bear is going to have this innate wariness of you as a person.”

So, while Jamie would not discourage a hiker from carrying a can of pepper spray, she is clear it should never be a substitute for common sense. The likelihood of actually being close enough to a bear to use it in his or her face it is extremely slim. Bears want to keep it that way too.

“One point too of things people can do to avoid the encounter altogether is just to be aware of your surroundings.” Jamie continued.

“Obviously look for signs, listen. Hiking in groups is really helpful, and staying together, you want to keep your kids within sight; you want to keep your dogs on a leash, and if you are going through anywhere there is thick cover, you just want to make noise, so the bear knows that there’s humans coming, and most of the time you won’t even see the bear, before the bear knows that you’re there.”

One collection of bear behavior videos is available on the North American Bear Center’s website.  These bears are filmed for educational purposes, and while somewhat tolerant of humans around them, they live more or less in a wilderness setting.

Jamie Sajeki concluded.

“I disagree with the belief that animals are unpredictable, bears in particular. People are really what’s unpredictable, and the way that humans, or we behave during a siting or encounter with an animal really guides what the outcome of that encounter is going to be, positive, or negative or neutral.”

Story By

Bonnie Ralston

Bonnie Ralston is the Assistant Station Coordinator at WVLS and a Highland County news reporter. She began volunteering at Allegheny Mountain Radio in the fall of 2005. In 2006 she became an AMR employee and worked in Bath County for eight years as the WCHG Station Coordinator and then as the news reporter there. She began working in radio while in college and has stayed connected to radio, in one way or another, for more than thirty years. She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, while spending a lot of time on her family’s farm in Deerfield, Virginia. She enjoys spending time outside, watching old TV shows and movies and tending to her chickens.

Current Weather