Blue Line

News
SAFETY IN BEAR COUNTRY


November 6, 2015
By Dave Brown

When citizens see bears, they usually panic and run away or grab a camera and run toward the bear. Either response likely ends in disaster – sometimes for the human but nearly always for the bear.

If an aggressive bear approaches, it’s probably because of inappropriate human behaviour, such as improper food storage or disposal of garbage, or because it has become acclimatized to humans. Regardless of why that bear became a problem, in many cases it will be up to to solve it.

This is the place for a shotgun. Yes, every Canadian police officer should have quick access to a patrol carbine, but there are many rural and remote areas where the carbine should not replace a shotgun in the front seat of their vehicle; it should accompany it.

{Firearms in Bear country}

Advertisment

No one wants to shoot a bear but if it comes down to bear or human life, you need to act quickly and accurately with the most powerful round you can carry; one that will stop the bear instantly and effectively.

The patrol carbine in 5.56mm is perfectly suited to two-legged threats but wholly unsuitable for instantly stopping a large heavy animal such as a bear. We are not taking a braced shot from a fixed position at 50 meters; we are shooting a large, angry animal at very close range, with no time or opportunity to pick shot placement.

Dangerous bears attack with little to no warning. Their size is deceptive; they run very fast and can cover 20 meters faster than you can say, “Bear!” A typical bear attack is close, fast, brutal and over in a heartbeat.

The best firearm for the average person in bear country is a short-barreled 12-gauge pump-action shotgun loaded with slugs. The standard police-issue shotgun with either bead or rifle sights is perfect for this task. It is reasonably compact and can deliver a huge impact into a large animal at very close range. Unlike the bolt-action rifles with iron sights typically carried by professional guides or experienced hunters, shotguns require few fine motor skills and can be fired by the average person with minimal training.

Unless the shot is fired from one meter away or less, buckshot is not an appropriate load for bear (and trust me, you don’t want to let it get that close). Neither are so-called `mixed loads’ in a magazine. Whoever first proposed mixing to fire “less” lethal rounds had no concept of what they were talking about, and certainly never set foot in bear country.

Shotguns are to be carried with an empty chamber and fully loaded with slugs in the magazine. Buckshot is a good alternate round in areas where officers may encounter wolves, wild dogs or four-legged cougars.

Bearbangers have also proven to be very effective at scaring bears away (until they get acclimatized to humans). Buckshot and bearbangers should be carried in a less-accessible pocket. Spare slugs always have priority for a fast reload.

Gunshots should never be relied upon to scare away bears. Bears don’t hear the same sound as the shooter and in most cases, the shot just makes the bear more curious.

The shotgun will always be the weapon of last resort. If a bear is being curious or territorial, other alternatives could be employed. If the bear is attacking though, there won’t be time. Aim for the center of the largest part you see and stop it NOW. Bear defense is NOT hunting. You won’t have time to pick your target.

All shotgun training should include learning how to quickly reload a round directly into the chamber in case you run the shotgun empty and need one more fast shot. This skill has various names but I refer to it as speedloading. During real-life bear attacks, people rarely have time to top off the magazine and they certainly won’t have the fine motor skills or the recent practice to use some fancy SWAT reload.

I use the simple strong-hand reload, holding the shotgun at its balance point with the support hand, the chamber open and facing upward, and dropping the spare round directly into the chamber from a strong side pocket.

This is speedloading for the average person, not the combat load as taught to “operators” by big name instructors trying to sell expensive training courses. “The shotgun is a complex weapon!” is an often heard refrain. “You need my three days of training.”

No, it’s not. The shotgun is a simple weapon. Pump the action when you perceive a threat; put the bead in the middle of the largest part you see; pull the trigger; repeat as necessary. Know how to speedload. Keep the shotgun clean. Keep it loaded appropriately. Keep your techniques simple. Rely on your training and common sense, not some tactical operator course on DVD.

{Bear behaviour}

Bears are individual creatures – highly intelligent, very curious and life-long learners. Every bear is different and each encounter will be different. No one can predict exactly what will happen.

General behaviour patterns have been observed that will provide clues as to whether a bear is likely to attack. These differ by species and may also differ between individuals.

Bears tend to be opportunistic eaters. Much like us, they would rather do the bear equivalent of lining up at the Tim Hortons drive-through than park across the lot and walk. (For bears, this may be characterized by, ‘why root through garbage cans when you can wait outside the back door of the Churchill Hotel at 2:15 AM.’)

Black bears: Approaches to humans are usually motivated by curiousity rather than predatory aims. They approach slowly, stopping regularly and sniffing the air. Bears simply want to find out who you are and what you are doing. They will be the easiest to deter if not acclimatized to humans.

Grizzly bears: Grizzly (brown) bears are large and aggressive, used to more open plains instead of deep bush and generally exhibit what is termed territorial behaviour. On approach, they tend to be loud, angry and distressed and may even charge at humans in what is called a “bluff” charge. Bears have been known to literally make their fur stand on end to appear large and angry. They are essentially trying to scare you out of their territory because they see you as competition. Bear spray has a well-documented history of success in preventing injuries from angry territorial bears.

The most dangerous bears to encounter are the quiet ones. Predatory bears attack with no sound and little to no warning. The attack will come quickly, usually from head-on or in a circular pattern. You will not know you are being attacked until the very last second. This is why one must carry bear spray in an easily accessible holster on a belt or backpack strap, not inside a pocket.

Polar bears: Among the most deadly animals on the face of the earth. They will spend days stalking humans for food and are experts at sneaking up on their prey, whether it be seals or humans. In polar bear country, few people venture away from civilization without a fully loaded shotgun at arm’s length 24 hours a day.

{Bear attacks}

Actual bear attacks are rare. Black and brown bears rarely attack humans without provocation. When they do, it’s usually because they are injured, surprised or protecting their young. Bears fed by humans or who have become used to them are the most dangerous and will likely need to be shot some day.

Watch for signs of predatory rather than curious or territorial behaviour but remember that bears are individuals and can exhibit as many forms of behaviour as humans. For example, the chances of being attacked by a young aggressive male black bear are far greater than by an older angry grizzly.

The goal is to always minimize or eliminate human/bear interactions. A problem bear, acclimatized to humans, will never become less of a problem. It will grow increasing aggressive until someone – possibly you – will have to shoot it.

That is the sad part. It’s not the bears you may deal with on rare occasion, it is the people you deal with daily that are the problem. In more than 25 years of teaching shotgun techniques to police officers, outdoor employees and professional bear guards, I have never met a single person who wanted to hurt a bear. My students often joke that I am not there to help people with bear problems; I am there to help bears with people problems. “Bear whisperer” jokes aside, this is the reality. It is a people problem.

You are expecting ordinary human beings to respond appropriately in extraordinary circumstances. That is not always going to happen. Having a good 12-guage shotgun loaded with slugs in the front seat of your patrol vehicle gives you an additional tool in areas where bears may be encountered.

All the wrenching stories on social media about dwindling bear numbers are wrong. Bear populations are strong and increasing, especially polar bears. (There are five times as many polar bears today as 40 years ago in certain areas of the Arctic.)

Bears are being forced to venture further to forage for food because humans are increasingly encroaching on their backyards. Attacks are becoming more common and more deadly. 2015 was a particularly bad summer.

Thankfully, encounters are still rare. In most cases, bears and humans go about their business without bothering each other. After all, the best bear encounter is the one that never happens.