A bear encounter on the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) last Friday went terribly wrong, leaving a Los Alamos woman in the hospital with a collapsed lung, several broken bones and multiple bites.
Although relatively rare, close encounters between humans and large predators like bears and mountain lions can occur on the SFNF, especially when drought conditions bring wild animals to lower elevations. You can minimize the possibility of a confrontation by following some basic guidelines. Keep your distance, and don’t give the animal a reason or an opportunity to attack.
SFNF forest biologist Daryl Ratajczak, who has studied large predators for years, says that if you encounter a bear or cougar at close range, “it is NOT a one-size-fits-all response. Your reaction should always be based on the behavior of the animal.”
If the animal is reacting in a defensive manner, the most common situation, they are upset at your presence. “More than likely you entered their personal space, they have offspring around, there is a fresh food source nearby, or your dog is intimidating to them,” Ratajczak said. “They just want you to go away.”
Bears may become very blustery and vocal, huffing or popping their jaws, and may even do a bluff charge. A cougar hisses or snarls to let you know it is upset by your presence. “Do not run, do not turn, simply talk quietly in a calm voice and slowly back out of their space.” Most of the time, that successfully ends the encounter for both parties.
If, however, the animal is acting in an offensive manner, it usually means they are in predator mode in search of food. “If they see you as prey, they will become silent and sneaky, keeping their head down low and their eyes on you.” This behavior warrants a completely different response.
“You must show the bear or cougar that you are the dominant animal. Stand your ground and talk or yell in a loud, firm voice – no high-pitched screams,” Ratajczak said. Grab sticks, rocks or bear spray and be prepared to use it. Do not turn or take your eyes off the animal threatening you. A hard stare will often slow or stop its approach.
“It’s your time to put on a show and let them know who is in charge. In most situations, once the animal recognizes you mean business, it will back down. In the worst-case scenario, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself,” Ratajczak said.
See the Forest Service Be Bear Aware webpage for more information on hiking and camping in bear country. For additional information on managing a wildlife encounter, see the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish brochure on living with large predators. It’s also worth a minute of your time to watch the National Park Service video on how to use bear spray effectively.