Be Bear Aware, Take Care

Grizzly in the Elkhorns

 

Bear Information

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is home to both black and grizzly bears, and provides important habitat for bears and other wildlife to use throughout the year. Learning about bears will help you become a more knowledgeable visitor to the forest, and will help keep both you and bears safe while sharing the woods.

Identification

Although black bears and grizzly bears have many things in common, it helps to know your bears.  Remember that color is not a good identifying characteristic, because many black bears in Montana are brown or even blonde, and grizzlies can be nearly black.

Bear I.D. Card

 

Bear Sign

Grizzly Bear TrackPhoto: Grizzly bear track found in the Arrastra Creek area, Helena Ranger District.

Knowing how to look for and identify bear sign can help remind you that you’re in bear habitat, and to be alert for their presence. Some things to look out for are:

  • Tracks—Bear tracks can appear with four or five toes, and sometimes claw marks are evident in the track.

  • Scat—Bear scat looks similar in shape to dog scat, although a bear’s scat changes based what it has been eating at any given time. Bears often pass entire berries, plant parts, etc., that appear un-digested in their scat.

  • Claw marks—Both black and grizzly bears leave claw marks on trees when they are scent marking or climbing to safety.

  • Digging – Bears dig for ground squirrels or plant roots, and often rip apart rotting stumps and logs in search of insects to eat.

 

Bear Behavior

Bears will generally avoid humans if they can; often a bear will leave an area without humans ever knowing they were there, thus avoiding potential encounters. There are some situations, however, that may cause bears to react to humans, sometimes in an aggressive manner. Those situations may occur when a bear is:

  • surprised by unexpected human presence

  • protecting her cubs

  • defending a food source

  • habituated to humans or conditioned to human foods, garbage, or other attractants

Bears are intelligent, curious, and have excellent memories, especially when it comes to food sources. Bears have 5-7 months to gain enough weight to sustain them through hibernation in winter. This means they are highly focused on finding and consuming food. Once a bear has associated a place or item with food, it is likely to return or to seek out similar situations in the hopes of finding more. Some bears may actively defend concentrated or high-value food sources, such as carcasses or localized berry patches. In the fall, when food sources become scarce and time for hibernation nears, bears may feed for as much as 20 hours a day. At that time of year bears may be more aggressive in defending food sources, and may also pay less attention to their surroundings, including to the presence of humans in an area. In some parts of Montana, bears have learned to seek out and feed on game carcasses and gut piles left by hunters.

Bears upright

Bears communicate differently than we do. Knowing what a bear is trying to tell you can make you safer in any encounter with a bear. A few key bear behaviors to know:

  • Averted eyes/face: a bear will avoid looking directly at you, signaling that it is trying to avoid direct confrontation. Doing the same thing tells the bear that you, too, wish to avoid conflict.

  • Tooth clacking, jaw popping, and huffing: these noises indicate that a bear is stressed by your presence. These noises are sometimes used where visibility is poor.

  • Standing: a standing bear is not charging, but is instead attempting to get a better look at you or its surroundings or is making sure to be seen

  • Bluff charge: A bear may run toward you, sometimes in a stiff-legged fashion, ears erect (not laid back as in an attack), and then veer off before making contact. This behavior is to get you to leave the area.

  • Black bears may be more likely to flee an encounter, or climb a tree. Grizzly bears may be more likely to react with aggression to the unexpected or unwelcome presence of a human.

How to Stay Safe in Bear Country

Cooking & Storing Food

Animals—not just bears—are attracted to food and food odors.

  • Don’t leave food or garbage unattended, and be sure to properly store your food, garbage, pet/livestock food in a bear-resistant manner.

  • Don’t burn or leave scraps or leftovers in your campfire.

  • Food preparation—animals don’t mind eating uncooked meat or food, so be sure to properly store your food until you cook it.

  • KNOW the local food storage requirements. Different areas of the Forest are covered by different requirements —Know before you go!

Food Storage Image

 

HLC’s Food Storage Orders

To help provide for human safety, the HLC will be signing food storage orders that cover the entire forest. Currently, there are food storage orders for on the Rocky Mountain and Lincoln Ranger Districts, and on National Forest System lands along the Smith River. Once the new orders are finalized, they will be posted here with maps of the areas.

Grizzly Bear on HLC

 

Hiking

  • Hike in groups of 3 or more people, and make noise along the way. You don’t want to surprise a bear!

  • If you see a bear ahead of you, give the bear its space and hike a different trail that day.

  • Know your surroundings. Look for signs of bears.

  • Carry bear spray, keep it accessible, and know how to use it.

  • Never run from a bear! Back away slowly while facing the bear.

 

 

Camping

  • Never keep food, garbage, or other odorous items (e.g., toothpaste, perfume, pet food, etc.) in your tent! *Food storage orders have specific requirements about management of food, garbage and other attractants; be sure to know what order covers the area where you’re camping.

  • Never feed bears (or other wildlife)!

  • Keep a clean camp.

  • Don’t leave food unattended; always store your food in a bear resistant manner.

Hunting  

  • Carry bear spray, keep it accessible, and know how to use it.

  • Field dress and remove the carcass as soon as possible. The longer the carcass is in the woods, the more likely it will attract a bear.*Specifics are outlined in local food storage orders!

  • Upon your return to a carcass, make noise and approach the area slowly, with bear spray ready.

  • Never attempt to take a carcass from a bear that has ‘claimed’ it

Bear Spray

Decades of experience in Alaska, Canada, and the western U.S. has demonstrated that bear spray is a more effective deterrent of bear attacks than firearms. The key is knowing how to use bear spray, and keeping it where you can reach it at a second’s notice.

 

 

Where to Find More Information

US Forest Service

Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee   

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks   

Glacier National Park    

Yellowstone National Park   

Flathead National Forest 

Western Wildlife Outreach