Close encounters are thrilling. Having a bear walk by at close range makes my heart pound every time.
When we go into bear country we find that our guests often have very high expectations for bear encounters. These expectations might come from seeing photos taken with powerful telephoto lenses and film footage of bears at extremely close range. Sometimes bears come close, other times their business may have them farther away. We bring scopes and binoculars so that we can all enjoy a close look. That being said, your guide will share tips and techniques to set you up for success and the best chance of seeing bears up close.
I thought that some of you might be interested in looking at some of the guidelines that professional guides and biologists have developed. These guidelines are an excellent overview of many of the things I think about in the field and when planning a trip. It’s a fairly nerdy deep-dive into bear viewing! Enjoy.
Recommendations and guidelines for areas where bears are habituated to people:
- Program management must be equally directed at providing public and bear safety and developing bears’ habituation to humans.
- Human use of the area must be secondary to the use by bears.
- Increase control of human activities as the number of persons using the area and/or the regularity of viewing increases.
- Minimize the size of the viewing site(s)* to that necessary to accommodate the group size; limit group size by the space limitations of the viewing site and by acceptance as indicated by bear behavior. – Limit viewing activities to designated viewing site(s).
- Viewing site(s) must not be in areas regularly used by bears.
- Never leave human foods accessible to bears; remove all organic waste when the group leaves.
- Access each viewing site by a single trail.
- Where possible, visually screen the approach and departure of visitors to the viewing site(s) from the bears, and make viewers at the site(s) unobtrusive.
- Minimize the number of trips to and from the viewing site(s), and instruct groups to plan on only one round trip to and from the viewing site(s).
- Minimize the number of groups viewing bears in space and time; a larger group size is generally preferable to an increased number of groups.
- If possible, arrange for travel to and from the viewing site(s) to occur at the same time each day. – Except for access trails and viewing site(s), keep all other areas of bear sanctuaries free from human use.
- Keep portions of each day visitor free to allow non-habituated bears a period of use without stress from humans.
- Have persons knowledgeable in bear behavior accompany each group; a prime responsibility of this person will be controlling human activity.
- In development of viewing site(s), accommodate visitor comfort and safety, especially to encourage human activities to remain within the prescribed area.
- Keep records of bear use of the area; judge success of viewing programs by undiminished numbers and hours of use by bears; keep human use goals secondary.
- Require those accessing a designated viewing area by boat and floatplane to maintain a constant speed and engine sound and maintain their direction as much as possible, consistent with safety and maintaining a reasonable distance from wildlife.
- Use aircraft only for transportation to and from designated on-the-ground viewing areas and not for flightseeing in these areas.
Where bears are not habituated to people:
- Always remain far enough away from the bear so that your presence, if noticed, does not affect
the animal’s behavior. Use binoculars, spotting scopes, or other telescopic lenses to improve your view.
- Bears are wild animals and you are viewing them in a remote area. Be prepared. Review current
agency information and brochures on protection and how to deal with close encounters.
- Always select a viewing position that does not make you vulnerable to a surprise approach by a
- Never directly approach a bear, allow it to move to you.
- Avoid situations where your presence could startle a bear.
- Avoid viewing from obvious bear trails.
- Never allow bears access to human foods.
- There is safety in numbers, stay with your group.
- If seen by a bear, avoid moving. Even minor movements will encourage wary bears to leave.
- Never use a motorized vehicle or boat to try getting close to a bear.
- Never run from an approaching bear; if you move away do it in a slow, deliberate manner.
- Show respect and courtesy to other bear viewers. Conduct your viewing in a way that doesn’t detract from their experience. Don’t mix booze with bears.
- Think wind, wind, wind. When possible always approach bears, or areas where bears are likely to be, from downwind.
- The best bear viewing is usually in the early morning or evening. Shoreline viewing is usually better during low tides.
- Small groups are less likely to disturb bears and so more likely to have better viewing. Keep your group size as small as possible.