Separation is Critical to Minimizing Danger from Bears, other Animals

Learn to Stay Safe near Wildlife

Dr. Stephen F. Stringham / Voices Of The Peninsula  / January 10, 2004

Ever since grizzly bears killed and ate Tim Treadwell and Amie Huguenard last October, speculation has been rife about why this happened. Critics often blame Treadwell's unusually close association with bears and apparent neglect of normal safety precautions.

Some of these same factors also are blamed for the recent death and consumption of Russian naturalist Vitaly Nikolayenko. He, like Treadwell, spent years interacting with coastal grizzlies, getting to know them personally and making extensive film records of their behavior.

Working on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, Nikolayenko took precautions that Treadwell did not, such as carrying pepper spray. Yet, Nikolayenko pushed the safety envelope just as hard in other ways. Indeed, getting too close and personal is apparently what killed Nikolayenko.

This may be especially dangerous during fall and winter, when bears are least tolerant of interference with their foraging to accumulate fat for hibernation, and when non-hibernating bears may be especially predatory.

A new report on Treadwell and Huguenard by the National Park Service "technical board of investigation" provides few novel insights into why they died, if only because those authorities had little new evidence to work from. Neither the National Park Service nor the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has had access either to findings by Alaska State Troopers, who first investigated these deaths, or to Treadwell's diary and video footage of events that preceded or accompanied the maulings. These items have been temporarily sequestered by Treadwell's estate.

Hopefully, copies of the diary and tape will soon be lent to bear experts for analysis as was probably intended by Treadwell. During my own research on bear behavior, I try to videotape every tense encounter in hopes of leaving a record of what happened in case I fail to defuse the situation.

Based on my conversations with Tim this past summer, I believe he did the same thing which is why his camcorder was running when he left his tent to confront the intruding bear than ended up killing him. Had his camcorder been sealed against rain and cold, he might have been carrying the instrument with him.

People are mauled by animals only during close encounters. Separation keeps people safe. So separation is a key to conventional measures to minimize aggression and property damage by bears.

Excellent instruction on avoiding encounters is provided by pamphlets available from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or from the Audubon Society office in Anchorage. There are also several good videos and books on the subject, including my own manual, "Alaska's Most Dangerous Game: Living Safely With Bears, Moose and Other Hazardous Wildlife."

Avoidance suffices for keeping most people safe under most circumstances. But it does not suffice for bear viewers and photographers who, like Tim, often want to be as close as is safe for more spectacular shots and for a greater sense of intimacy with the animals.

When close encounters cannot or will not be avoided, one must learn how to behave at close quarters to pacify defensive bears or to intimidate and dissuade offensive bears. "Alaska's Most Dangerous Game" addresses this in unique detail based on hundreds of personal encounters.

Teachers or parents seeking instruction for K-12 students should contact me through the Bear Viewing Association (260-9059), Derek Stonorov through the Anchorage office at the Audubon Society (276-7034), or Larry Lewis through the Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna (262-9368).

All three of us also provide training for adults, including teachers. Larry offers the best training in this region on using firearms against bears and moose. I teach Bears and Bear Safety (nicknamed "Grizzly 101" by Channel 2 News) at the Kenai and Seward campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage each Monday evening from 7 to 10 p.m. and at the Mat-Su campus during two weekends in April. A bear safety certificate is awarded to anyone passing my course with honors. Stonorov's course is sometimes offered at the Homer campus.
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Dr. Stephen F. Stringham, who lives in Soldotna, is a professor at the University of Alaska, director of the Bear Viewing Association, president of WildWatch Consulting and author of two books on living safely with bears. He was one of the first biologists to study bears at Katmai and has spent much of the past 30 years learning how to read a bear's mood and intentions, so that dangerous encounters can be avoided or resolved without harm to people or bears.

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