The last month has seen a spike in encounters involving runners and bears with little rhyme or reason. The trio of highly-publicized incidents have ranged from cute to creepy to catastrophic. And interestingly enough, they spanned the corners of the country from Alaska to Colorado to Maine.
“It’s unusual to have three incidents of separate groups of runners in a row,” says Dave Garshelis, PhD, a bear biologist and wildlife research scientist with the Minnesota Department of National Resources, who co-chairs the Bear Specialist Group. Garshelis has studied black bears for almost three decades and also works as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.
“This does happen pretty much every year that there is a runner who gets attacked,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, especially when you see a burst of it happening and not in one area. It’s not like there was a food shortage. There’s no real underlying reason. I imagine that it’s just by chance that you end up with three in a row.”
In terms of what actually prompted the bears to engage with the humans, Garshelis says more than likely the runners tripped a “chase stimulus” within the bears.
“If you’re a bear it’s probably an odd ball thing to happen,” he explains. “You walk out of the woods and all of a sudden a person goes running by. There is that potential stimulus to chase—like a dog chases a car—for whatever reason. Why does a dog chase a car? It’s unexplainable, but it sets off something in their brain to chase.”
As you’d expect, he closely follows all human-bear encounters. In the case of Moninda Marube, who was chased by two bears in Maine but found refuge behind a thin screen door, Garshelis says there’s evidence to support his theory that this wasn’t a predatory attack, but rather the chase stimulus kicking in.
“Clearly if the bears wanted to get to him and all they had to do was lean into this flimsy screen door,” he says. “At that point the separation of this screen door was enough to say ‘the chase is over.’ Whatever signaled the chase to shutoff at that point indicating that this wasn’t a predatory attack. The initial event was over when there was a structure involved.”
Now, the potentially life-saving question: What do you do if you encounter a bear while on a run? The first steps, he says, are to be prepared before the encounter even happens. This includes some common-sense preparation.
- Run with a friend if you can
- If you can’t, tell someone what trail you’ll be on
- Research the area: Are there black bears? Or the significantly more aggressive grizzly bears?
- Bring pepper spray
- Plan your schedule: Bears are likely to be more active in early morning or late night. They want to avoid the heat, so more than likely “they will hole up during the day or find a shady spot and will be more active when it’s cooler.”
Assuming you have taken all of these precautions, but you still encounter a bear, what should you do?
Despite the end result of Marube’s situation, running is rarely your best option. Don’t try to climb a tree, either, Garshelis says. Bears are faster and better climbers than we are.
“He [Marube] was a natural runner and he trusted his legs more than fighting the bear,”Garshelis says of the situation. “In most cases it’s better to stand your ground, yell at the bear. Convince the bear you are a person and try to stop whatever has triggered the bear to chase you. By standing still and yelling—typically—it won’t chase and will run away. You could also try throwing something at it or using pepper spray.”
If that doesn’t work and the bear continues to advance, that means it’s trying to prey on you. This is extremely rare, Garshelis says. But at that point, it’s just a matter of doing what you can to survive.
“Now you’re dealing with a strong animal with sharp claws and big teeth,” he says. “It’s hard for a person to save themselves except for falling to the ground and curling up. Fight or play dead. Typically, if the bear is trying to prey on you, the fight is better than to play dead.”
Search YouTube for bears in suburban areas and you’re likely to find a slew of videos. Even earlier this month, police in La Verne, Calif., (about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles) helped this bear cub get a plastic jug off its head.
“There has definitely been a trend toward less fear in bears,” Garshelis explains. “People have recognized—especially black bears—that they are showing up more in suburban areas. Actual attacks are very rare. So extremely rare that maybe people have become too complacent about seeing black bears. It’s OK to not always be on edge. But when they show up in places we haven’t seen them—or they surprise you [on a run]—that’s when it’s important to know how to handle the situation.”