An Interview with a Bear Guide: Part 2
With over two decades of military experience and seven seasons of bear guiding experience, Lance Bassett is Emerald Air Service’s expert bear guide and naturalist in the field. We wanted to sit down with Lance and ask him a few questions about bear viewing. This interview touches on safety in the field, deterrence, and a question you may have wondered about: why don’t bear viewing guides carry firearms?
If you missed the first part of this interview, you can find it here.
1. How do you protect the group if a bear begins approaching you?
I use what I call “escalation of force procedures.” What we don’t want to do is overreact to a situation and scare or displace the bear. Most of the time, the best thing to do is nothing—just sit and enjoy the experience. I am always watching the bear’s body language for any sign of agitation, stress, or the bear being uncomfortable with our presence. This will tell you a lot and you can preempt any issues. If a bear goes out of my comfort zone, or I see a guest who is really uncomfortable, I will address the situation. After all, it is counterintuitive to stay sitting while a bear approaches you. This can be just talking to the bear or a slight movement of a hand. If this doesn’t work to alter the bear’s behavior just slightly, then I will try clapping my hands, waiving a pair of rain pants, or yelling. The last use of force is lighting off a flare. The smoke, fire, and hissing sound are a proven deterrent.
2. How often have you had to deter an approaching bear?
It doesn’t happen very often and each encounter is different. To directly answer the question, maybe once a week, and that is usually with a slight hand movement or talking to the bear. That doesn’t mean that the bear is just a few yards away—it can range from over 50 yards away to 20 yards, and it is all situationally dependent. Most of the time when a bear does approach, I will move to the front, put myself between the bear and guests, and talk to the bear. Or if I am already there, I may talk, move my hand, or slightly clap my hands. Very seldom do you have to do anything else.
3. In your experience, how successful are these techniques in deterring bears?
Through my training and field experience, I have found that these techniques are highly effective:
First, we need to step back and understand why bears approach the group. Bears are not normally aggressive where they see people and are often near them. Where we go to view bears, they are used to our presence. We use the same bear etiquette every time in the field so that is what the bear expects. That is why we sit, walk, never run, are quiet, and remain in a group. The bear expects us to do this and they see this as “normal” and non-aggressive. We can actually break down why a bear directly approaches a group: (1) aggression and (2) curiosity and play.
3.1 Let’s talk about the aggressive bear.
During the mating season, late May through mid-July, male bears (boar) are more aggressive than at other times. So, these sexually mature males may approach a group to displace us. When I do see an actively aggressive bear in the field either pursuing a female or pushing other bears out of the area, we just stay away and keep a safe distance. This is the first step and is the best deterrent to stay safe. Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation.
There is a lot we don’t see that happens in the field. Bears fight for dominance, food, or mating rights, and most of the time we do not witness it and have no idea it just occurred. To see this is incredible, but we don’t know most of the time if a bear was just in a fight and has a lot of pent up aggression. Then, along comes our group and he tries to come over to try to push us around. This is extremely rare, but when it does occur, my escalation of force goes from me getting in front of our guests, to yelling at the bear with a flare ready to go instantly. In most encounters, there are signs—bear body language—of what is about to happen so you can deescalate. I must add that, while in the field, I always have a flare attached to my binocular case on my chest for quick access and deployment at all times.
3.2 Let’s talk about the curious and playful bear.
Other times, when a bear comes towards you, it is out of curiosity. Believe it or not, they want to play. That sounds crazy, but sometimes bears do want to play with either you or the group and there is body language to indicate this. It’s funny, but can be unnerving because a bear of 500 pounds wanting to play with a person weighing 180 pounds doesn’t really work. The most active response I’ve ever used was on a playful bear. We were watching two bears wrestle for about 45 minutes when they stopped, wandered over, and wanted us to join. There was “bear language” that I recognized, telling me that they wanted to play and weren’t aggressive. They were persistent though, so I had the entire group stand up and yell, making ourselves big and loud. The two got the idea and left only to go back and play amongst themselves. Afterwards we all had a good laugh.
Most of the time, when it appears a big bear is coming at the group, they are not. They are actually just coming towards the group while going from place to place, or just heading in our general direction. This is where we will just sit and be quiet. Now, if the bear keeps coming while eating, then a simple wave of the hand or me talking to the bear usually keeps them at a safe and comfortable distance.
I’ve talked about giving space to bears and not putting yourself in a dangerous situation. To elaborate a little more on this, bears do not have a territory they defend, but, rather, personal space. For some bears, their personal space can be 100 yards or more and this is generally common with a sow who has spring cubs in tow. Others, like a dominant male, have personal space wherever they are. So, we always respect personal space and don’t invade that. The last thing we want to do is agitate a bear.
4. Why don’t you carry a gun just in case things get bad?
This is always a controversial discussion. I have read research on guns for bear deterrent and statically speaking, it is the least effective choice. The reasoning is that you are more likely to miss or injure a bear than kill in on the first shot. To be effective against a 500–1000 pound brown bear, you need something the size of a Smith and Wesson 500 to stop a charging bear with a single shot. Then, there is the size of the gun—it is huge. I have seen some guides carry .45 caliber firearms. This will not stop a bear. Yes, there will be arguments/discussions with my answer to this.
With a flare, the natural deterrents of fire and smoke, coupled with a hissing sound, produces the same effect without harming the bear. I have seen bears react to fire and the smell of smoke from over a quarter mile away. In one instance, I watched a couple bears walking past a cold and buried fire pit from a fire I had on the beach the day before. They approached the area cautiously, then ran past it before slowing to a walk again.