A solo hiker was attacked by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park this morning, May 28. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

JACKSON, Wyo. — Encounters between hunters and grizzly bears are rare, but experts say it’s important to be prepared and hyper-aware of your surroundings, and avoid settings where you could surprise a bear.

Research shows that bear spray, not a gun, is the best tool for the job if conflict does arise.

A healthy fear, respect, should encourage the outdoorsperson to be prepared. Always keep at least two cans of bear spray within easy reach. That’s advice from Kristin Combs with Wyoming Wildlife Advocates for hunters who may encounter a grizzly bear while tracking mule deer, elk or other game.

Combs says for hunters who do not take their kills back home the same day, be alert when you do return. She says like all other animals, bears will protect their food source, and no carcass is worth your life.

“If you come upon a carcass, and a bear has already claimed it—and it looks like it’s been partially buried, or covered, or maybe the bear is actually in the area still—that’s the best opportunity to just walk away, and leave that for the bear,” Combs says.

While hunting practices are not in sync with standard safety protocol in bear country—hunters intentionally don’t make loud sounds to announce their presence, for example, or travel in large groups—Combs says there are still ways to stay safe. Be hyper-aware of your surroundings, stay clear of heavy timber cover, and areas with dense willows to avoid stumbling onto a bear’s day bed.

Bear encounters are rare, and most do not involve conflict, those are the encounters that get the most attention. Combs says most people who encounter a grizzly say they walked away with a deeper appreciation of wildlife and nature.

“This year, we had a higher incidence of grizzly bear encounters, just because there was more people that were turning to nature because of the pandemic,” Combs says. “Most encounters with bears are people see the bear, they walk away, and everybody goes about their business.”

Combs says if there is conflict, bear spray is a better tool for the job than your gun. Most hunters in a crisis situation will likely not land a shot that stops a bear on its first charge. Combs says research shows that for anyone visiting bear country, your best bet for walking away without injury to you or the bear is having bear spray close at hand. She adds it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure bears are around for future generations.

Additionally, evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death for the human or the bear. Firearms can certainly kill a bear, but the real questions are can a bullet kill quickly enough — and can the shooter be accurate enough to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack?

“If somebody feels that their life is threatened, we want them to be able to rely on whatever method they feel is most effective, but if you look at the statistics, hands down, bear spray is the way to go,” Combs says.