Like any hiker that spends a lot of time in bear country, I have a healthy respect for bears. But the only animal that’s tried to straight-out kill me in the wilderness was a moose, so I’ve had to learn how to stay on a moose’s good side, too.
Case in point: A few years ago I went climbing with a friend. The crag was about a half-mile hike from the highway. Our skinny footpath was the only trail through an overgrown crush of spiny, head-high devil’s club and the occasional tree, all funneling between two rock faces.
A cow moose must have had her baby in the middle of that trail sometime after we first passed by. On the way back down a few hours later, the undergrowth started vibrating violently in front of me as we reached a blind turn around the trail. I had just enough time to think Please don’t be a bear! Don’t be a bear! before the cow moose materialized from the bushes in full-on stomp mode.
We did the right thing, or at least my friend did: She dived right into the thicket of devil’s club and looked for a tree to hide behind, whereas I turned and ran back up the footpath. Moose are faster than humans, of course, but that didn’t really matter because I only got a few steps in before I slipped on a rock.
I tripped and fell flat on my face, right in front of the moose. Everything after that happened in slow motion: I spent a long time falling. I twisted around to see the moose looming over me. That’s a big moose, I thought. And then I froze, because it was the only option I had left.
And the moose went back to whatever was around the corner — her calf, we assume — without laying a hoof on me.
We gave the moose about half an hour to calm down and move off before we tried the trail again, but when we peeked around the blind corner she was still there — ears laid back, ruff raised, clearly ready to attack again.
Our only other option for getting back to the car was crawling through the devil’s club, spines and all, with frequent pauses to peer above the vegetation for any sign of mama moose, then below it for any trace of the baby we assumed she was guarding. I’m sure I could have handled just the first, run-or-die part of the encounter on my own, but it was during that nerve-racking descent back to the road that I was truly grateful to be hiking with a trusted friend.
If you live in bear country, you’ve probably had one key rule of bear safety drilled into your head: Don’t run. Don’t run. Don’t run.
Well, guess what: That rule is completely different for moosesafety. Running from a charging moose won’t trigger predatory instincts, and once you’re outside a moose’s “personal space” — which varies from animal to animal — it’s probably going to leave you alone. It’s not like it could eat you, even if it wanted to.
Moose have a top of speed of 30+ mph, so you’re not going to win a footrace with them. If a moose charges you, run for solid cover like a tree you can duck behind. Climbing the tree is a viable option if there’s time.
If a moose does charge you and knock you down, curl into a ball and stay still, protecting your head with your hands as best you can. A backpack can offer some protection for your spine. The moose might kick you and stomp you before it decides you’re no longer a threat and moves away. Don’t get up until the moose leaves you alone and moves off; if it remains close by and agitated, it might interpret your movement as a renewed threat.
If the moose hasn’t charged you, you can probably go about your business as long as you observe the proper moose etiquette. Give the moose plenty of space (the Alaska Department of Transportationrecommends at least 50 feet; I say give it more if you can). Never, ever get between a mother moose and her calves, so if you suspect there might be little ones around, take the time to figure out where they are before you make your move. If you suspect the presence of little ones but can’t spot them, your options are:
- Go back
- Wait a while and see if the situation changes
- Cross your fingers and give momma moose the absolute widest berth you can
Like most animals, moose have their own vocabulary to let you know they’re feeling uncomfortable. Look out for raised hackles along the moose’s shoulders, earns pinned back (like a dog’s or horse’s), or a lowered head. A moose moving toward you isn’t a good sign; move away from it and seek cover if you can.
Reasons Moose Might Charge
Moose typically don’t want anything to do with you, but they’re also notoriously temperamental and unpredictable. Here are are some of the most common reasons a moose might charge you:
- It’s stressed. Hunger and inclement conditions, like deep snow, can stress moose and make them more irritable than usual. Give a stressed moose as much space as you can, and be on the lookout for warning signs that it’s zeroed in on you as a threat (or a scapegoat).
- It’s cornered. If a moose feels cornered, it’s more likely to charge.
- It’s been harassed. If a moose has been harassed — by people, dogs, or other wild animals — it’s more likely to see you as a threat (or take its irritation out on you).
- Dogs bother it. This warrants a special mention because if your off-leash dog goes after a moose, it may well get kicked in reply, or run back to you with the moose in hot pursuit. (Moose can kick out to the side, front, and back.) Many experts warn that moose see dogs as wolves — which prey on moose — and may go out of their way to kick a dog, even if it’s tied or leashed.
- Mating season. Bulls are particularly aggressive during the September and October mating season.
- Calving season. Cows are especially aggressive when protecting calves, which are born in late spring. While a mother with ambulatory calves will usually move away if given the opportunity, they’ll stay put to defend calves that can’t walk yet, and I’ve heard that they’ll stay with stillborn calves for quite some time as well. (I suspect that may have been what happened with the “Moose of Doom.”)
Ways to Keep Safe
Practicing moose safety is as simple as eliminating potential reasons for a charge. Give moose plenty of space (at least 50 feet, preferably more) and take care never to force them into a corner. If you have dogs, keep them on-leash and under control. Be especially wary if the moose seems irritable or if calves are around.
And above all, stay aware of your surroundings. Making some noise lets the moose know you’re coming and gives them a chance to avoid conflict in the first place; but you should also be paying close attention with your eyes and ears so you can see or hear them coming, too. If it comes down it a moose is a lot bigger and more dangerous than you are, so let it have the right of way on the trail.
Hikers need to reconcile two contradictory ideas before hiking in bear country: The odds of being injured by bears are quite remote. But you also can’t ignore the potential for bear attacks. The stakes are simply too high, so it’s essential to follow bear safety tips.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition puts the chances of being injured by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park at one in 1.9 million.
But in July 2011, the park experienced its first bear-related fatality since 1986 when a grizzly sow defending her cubs attacked two hikers on the Wapiti Lake Trail. And not long after,Yellowstone wildlife officials had to kill a different grizzly bear when it acted aggressively toward park visitors during several different incidents.
The potential for bear encounters is also increasing. More people are out on trails and development along the wildland-urban interface has infringed on bear habitat.
And changing patterns in bear behavior are bringing the animals closer to populated areas than ever before. A New York Times article described how climate change has forced grizzlies to forage more widely because of the decline of whitebark pines, which produce pine nuts that the bears depend on in their diet.
Add it all up and it’s definitely a good idea to familiarize yourself with bear safety tips before heading out on a hike. There’s no need to be overly fearful. Just prepared.
North America is home to three species of bears. But because most of us aren’t likely to head out for a day hike in the Arctic, I’ll skip polar bears and focus instead on grizzlies (also known as brown bears) and black bears.
Range: Grizzlies have been eliminated from 98 percent of their native range in the American West and the Great Plains, according to the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife. They’re now found from Alaska (the population there is 30,000) through western Canada, and down through parts of Washington and into the Northern Rockies. About 600 grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Size: Grizzlies are bigger than black bears, although some male black bears can actually be larger than female grizzlies. Grizzlies can weigh more than 850 pounds and stand nearly seven feet tall. Kodiak bears, an Alaskan subspecies of grizzlies, can weigh well over 1,000 pounds and stand ten feet tall.
Color: Although there’s considerable variation in color, grizzlies tend to be browner and redder than black bears.
Distinguishing Traits: Grizzlies have a prominent hump on their back. Their ears are small and rounded.
Range: With an estimated population of 300,000 animals in the U.S. across 40 states, black bears are much more numerous and widely distributed than grizzlies.
Size: Larger males can weigh more than 500 pounds but most average between 150-300 pounds.
Color: Despite their name, black bears have great color variation. Cinnamon-colored black bears are not unusual and many also have prominent white chest patches.
Distinguishing Traits: Light-colored chest patches. Prominent ears and more of a direct line from forehead to the tip of the nose than grizzlies. Grizzlies have a much more defined brow.
• Avoiding Bear Attacks
Be bear aware. Bears frequently use hiking trails, so pay attention and look for signs of recent activity: clean pawprints, scat, and trees with fresh claw marks. Avoid any carcasses you may come upon because bears will defend their kills.
Hike at safe times. Chances of bear encounters are more likely around dawn and dusk. Yellowstone National Park recommends against hiking after dark.
Make your presence known. Try not to surprise bears. Bear country is one place where you need to break the rules of trail etiquette. Wear bear bells, blow a whistle, sing, and clap your hands as you hike down the trail.
Hike in a group. When Banff National Park imposed strict seasonal rules for hiking in bear country, it required visitors to stay in tight groups of at least four people. Be sure to keep children close to you at all times.
Be cautious in areas of dense vegetation. Use extra care (and make extra noise) in trail sections with limited visibility and hearing. Dense thickets, especially areas with a heavy concentration of berries, are prime bear habitat. There’s also a chance that you may surprise a bear as you round a bend. And when bears are feeding along streams, the noise of rushing water may make it harder for them to hear you.
Leave the dog at home (or keep it on a leash). Your dog may try to protect you and will confront a bear farther up on the trail. If there’s a chase, your dog can easily lead the bear right back to your group.
Carry bear spray. According to the Denali National Park and Preserve website, pepper spray effectively deters grizzly attacks 90 percent of the time. But it’s a last resort defense and no substitute for following basic bear safety guidelines. Be sure to also familiarize yourself with how the spray canister works before you head out.
• Bear Encounters
Stay calm. If the bear hasn’t noticed you, try to leave the area. Speak quietly and don’t make threatening gestures or do anything else that may provoke the bear. Never approach a bear for a closer look or a photograph.
Back away. Keep your eyes on the bear but avoid direct eye contact. Bears may consider that aggressive behavior. Waving your arms is okay.
Never feed bears. Bears are omnivorous eating machines and are constantly searching for food. If you put out food so you can observe bears, they may begin to associate humans with feeding. That can mean serious problems for other people and for the bear too. As the saying goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear” because wildlife officials often kill bears that get into the habit of approaching humans for food.
Watch out for cubs. The most dangerous bear encounter is with a mother defending her cubs.
Don’t run. Bears can reach speeds of 35 mph. That’s more than 500 feet in 10 seconds. Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a charging bear, so neither can you.
Look for warning signs. Stomping of feet, swaying, woofing, clacking of jaws, ears flattened against the head, and a steady glare are all possible precursors of an attack. But a bear rearing up on its hind legs is more a sign of curiosity than a hint of imminent aggression.
• How to Survive an Attack
Don’t panic. Both grizzlies and black bears often try to intimidate with bluff charges. And they can certainly be quite intimidating. Bears will run at full speed then peel off or come to a halt—sometimes within 10 feet of you. Some experts suggest throwing an object to the ground to distract a charging bear. But keep your daypack on because it might provide a bit of protection if the bear does attack.
Play dead with grizzly bears. Curl up in a ball or lie face down and clasp your hands tightly against your neck and the back of your head. Try to remain as still and silent as you possibly can. Not easy.
Fight back against black bears. Use your hands, camera, rocks, or anything else you can reach to defend yourself against black bears. The strategy is similar to how you would handle a mountain lion attack because black bears are much more easily scared off than grizzlies.