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Refuge: Be prepared, aware of bears

Elizabeth Earl

Jason Oles knows a lot about bears. He’s worked among Kodiak brown bears, Rocky Mountain grizzlies, North Slope polar bears, and Kenai Peninsula black bears, on various national parks and wildlife refuges. Now a ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, he says there are definitely a few tricks to living, working, and recreating among bears.

"Bear safety for us is a three-prong approach," he said. "It’s awareness, being aware of your surroundings, it’s respect for bears, whe new step into bear habitat we’re no longer the biggest and baddest, top of the food chain anymore, and that takes a mental shift I think for most folks, and hopefully some of today’s discussion will help provide more of that third leg of the stool, and that’s knowledge of bear behavior."



Oles and trails manager Scott Slavik gave a workshop on bear preparedness at the Kenai refuge on Tuesday. This summer, there have been a number of high-profile bear encounters across the state, including around the peninsula. There were two in June near Skilak Lake. Slavik says the number of bear encounters isn’t a lot higher than usual this summer, but people are becoming more aware of them.


Brown and black bears aren’t an infrequent sight out in the forests across the peninsula. Chances are that frequent hikers, bikers and campers will run into one at some point. Slavik says there are a number of ways to prevent an encounter from turning negative, but a key part of it is just being aware.


"We want people to be out on the refuge and enjoy it, and not be scared, right?" he said. "We want you to be aware, not complacent, but somewhere in this nice, ‘I can do this, I can keep myself safe, and keep the bears safe’ (place)."


Being aware means knowing where bears are likely to be, how they sound and how to read the environment. Standing in an broad, open area, the chances of seeing a bear before surprising it are fairly high. But in tall grass in the middle of the summer, close to a salmon stream, people should be paying close attention to the signs and sounds of a bear.


In many cases, with enough warning, it can be easier to simply back away from a bear if enough distance remains and it doesn’t feel threatened. Oles recommended shuffle stepping backward, with both feet staying on the ground, to avoid tripping and accidentally triggering a bear’s predatory tendencies. He also recommended against running away.


Having a deterrent of some kind on hand is important as a second line of defense. Oles said it’s a personal choice to carry a gun or bear spray, but one note is that bear spray can be deployed quickly while a gun may take time to be aimed steadily.


"We lose our fine motor function," he said. "That’s the reson why we can’t get our bear sprays out of our holsters and get the safety off. We can only accomplish very big gross motor movements."


Bear spray is made from an extract of pepper—capsaicin. It’s oily and stings a bear’s eyes and respiratory tract, and has been shown to be very effective when it can be deployed. That’s the trick, though; Slavik said in a number of the cases of bear encounters this summer, victims weren’t able to deploy their bear spray because it was out of reach or they weren’t practiced. He recommends carrying it in the same place every time and having it easily within reach of either hand.


A can of spray puts out a cloud of spicy fog between people and charging bears. The range varies by the brand, but it can reach between 15 and 40 feet. It’s remarkably effective, especially when a bear is breathing heavily from running, Oles says.


Bears can approach for other reasons, too, especially when they are nosy adolescents. They may be curious, hungry, or in rare cases, predatory. Black bears do have more of history of predation on humans than brown bears, though it’s still not common, Oles said.


Making plenty of noise while recreating, traveling in groups, walking rather than running, and knowing how bears behave can help with preventing negative encounters with bears. That preserves people’s lives, and bears’ lives, too—depending on the situation, wildlife officials may track down and euthanize a bear after a negative encounter with people.


Reach Elizabeth Earl at

Elizabeth Earl is the news reporter/evening host for summer 2021 at KDLL. She is a high school teacher, with a background writing for the Peninsula Clarion and has been a freelance contributor to several publications in Alaska.
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