Studying Berries in Bear Country
Summer ‘tis the season of studies from geology to ornithology and everything in between. I study wild berry species to try to find what environmental factors have the strongest influence on berry productivity. With no other wild fruits in Alaska, berries are an important natural and cultural resource, one that is becoming increasingly variable.
The number of flowers a berry plant produces is dependent on the weather over the previous one or two growing seasons but the number of those flowers that become berries is entirely dependent upon the summer in which they are growing. That is primarily what I’m looking at: of the flowers blueberry and lingonberry bushes produced this year, how many became berries and why or why not? Because this summer is my only field season I had to cram in as much data collection as I could.
I was out every day during the brief blooming period to count flowers on all of the 384 plants I was monitoring across 17 sites. I continued a few more weeks after the blooming to collect all the environmental data I needed before finally, just as the berries were getting ripe, returning to all my sites one last time to cut down the plant for further study in the lab over winter.
When I began my fieldwork in May, I carried bear spray and yelled the occasional “Hey Bear!” as I worked but I didn’t really take the threat perhaps as seriously as I should have. Sure, I study berries and walking around in berry patches all summer has inherent risks but since the berries weren’t ripe yet, I was out during the middle of the day when most animals are less active, and bears aren’t super common in interior Alaska anyway, I wasn’t too concerned (at first).
My attitude toward bear safety got significantly less blasé in late June when two Alaskans, one near Anchorage another near Fairbanks, were killed by predatory black bears within a two day period. The second death was a fellow Fairbanks-area early career female field scientist - that really shook me. When working in my study sites I began playing music and podcasts loudly through my phone as I moved through the forests and berry patches, and practiced pulling out my bear spray in case I ever needed to do so quickly.
Although it is almost the end of my field season, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to participate in a bear safety class led by a retired Alaskan wildlife biologist. It was three hours packed with information that I thought might be of interest to anyone who works or recreates in bear country. Here are a few practical safety tidbits.
First off, the names black bear (Ursus americanus) and brown (aka grizzly or Kodiak) bear (U. arctos horribilis) can be misleading. Black bears can also be cinnamon, brown, grey, or white in coloring while grizzly bears range from a light honey-brown to a dark mahogany-brown. The picture to the right is a cinnamon colored black bear with cinnamon and black cubs.
Grizzly bears evolved in open habitats but have spread to forested regions while black bears are only found in or around forests.
The evolutionary history of the two species plays into their behavior during encounters particularly when it comes to a mother with cubs. Female grizzly bears on the ancient tundra or grasslands where they evolved, had no place to hide when threatened by males, the only option was to fight. Female black bears and their cubs could, and still do, retreat up a tree when threatened and in Alaska, black bear mothers don’t strongly defend their young for this reason.
Knowing which bear you are looking at can completely change how you should react to an encounter. Montana Fish and Wildlife put together a bear identification tutorial and online test - I found reviewing the material and taking the test very helpful.
Human and Bear Interactions
Bears don’t have a different set of behaviors when reacting to humans compared to other threats, so it is up to us to learn how to read bear behavior and adapt to the encounter to the best of our ability.
First, NEVER RUN. Running will trigger a chase response.
Bears have a personal bubble just as we do, the more we can do to broadcast our location the better. Most attacks occur when individuals stumble across a bear at close range, less than 20m. When walking in shrubby terrain, especially when near a loud waterway (or other landscape feature that could mask your sound), talk with your field partner, sing, make noise, and have your bear spray in hand.
If you do stumble across a bear that hasn’t noticed you, quietly retreat. If it notices: talk calmly, make yourself look big by waving your arms out, and slowly retreat. If it stands it’s mostly curious and getting a better look or smell, if it follows, stand your ground (terrifying, I know) and prepare your deterrent (bear spray or gun). The longer the bear keeps its attention on you the louder you should be and the more strongly you should be considering the bear spray.
Bear spray has a range of at least 25 feet, but it is almost guaranteed you will get some in your face too. Take a deep breath before using, and if you are in windy conditions, pull your shirt up over your eyes if the material is thin enough to see through, or use your thumb and forefinger of your free hand to push your eyebrows up to keep your eyelids open. According to our instructor he couldn’t open his eyes for 40 minutes after getting bear spray in his face. Granted, he did it on purpose to know the effects, but being blinded for over half an hour if you are in sub-optimal wind conditions could put you in further danger.
If things continue to escalate and it gets to the point of contact here is where it is critical to know what species you are dealing with.
Nearly all grizzly attacks are defensive so get on your stomach, cover your neck, spread your legs a little so it can’t flip you over, and play dead. Don’t get up until you are sure the bear has left the area. If an encounter gets to the point of contact with a black bear it is most likely a predatory male. FIGHT like your life depends on it, because it does.
Of course, it’s best to never encounter the bears while working in the first place.
Work in groups, talk, make noise while moving around. When camping keep a clean camp: cook and store food, toiletries, and garbage in a bear proof container at least 200 feet away from where you are sleeping.
The class instructor suggested a device called CritterGitter which acts as a motion activated alarm for your camp site.
Make noise when moving through bear country
Give any sighted bears lots of space
Keep a clean camp
Stay calm, look big, DON’T RUN
There is a lot to learn but knowing what to do and thinking clearly while in bear country will get all of us who work outdoors a long way toward a safe field season.
If you have suggestions for field stories of dealing with challenging encounters or environments that others in our scientific network might benefit from, let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Comments will be visible to the public. Before commenting for the first time, please review the ECCF's Editorial Policy.