Bear Necessities: A conversation with James Jonkel, Wilderness Specialist

Jul 22nd, 2021

With so much excitement about loosened travel restrictions, people are rushing into the outdoors for some much-needed space and fresh air — us included! While we have covered bear safety before, such as this one about cycling safely in bear country, or this one about camping and bear awareness that includes a video on how to hang your food, it’s always nice to have a fresh reminder of safety and etiquette tips for bike travel, whether it’s a tour through human communities or through the yards of our wilder friends and neighbors. For more info on staying safe and being a good cycling ambassador, check out our other blog posts.

After learning of a tragic incident close to the Adventure Cycling office that resulted in the death of a cyclist, I called our friend James Jonkel, the Wildlife Management Specialist for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department, for some personal education as well as some helpful information to pass on to our readers and members who may be venturing into the Great Outdoors for some bikepacking this summer.

There are a few main takeaways worth sharing:

1. Scope your surroundings.

Are there huckleberries or other snacks nearby? If so, then a bear and possibly her cubs could also be nearby looking for a snack. Check the dust (or mud, if you’re lucky enough to get some precipitation) for tracks. Check trees for scratches. When and if you come to a clearing, check the next stretch of range you’ll be riding toward to see if there is anything coming up on your path. Bring binoculars! Most importantly, take it a chunk at a time, scanning as you go.

2. Make noise.

A bear bell is a good start, but it’s not really the sort of noise that bears are paying attention to because it isn’t organic and it can become rather rhythmic depending on the terrain. Talk, sing, whack trees with a stick so it sounds like something big is coming. Don’t just start making noise out of nowhere because it could startle a bear, but keep on making it. Not necessarily the entire time, but whenever you start going into a valley or somewhere dense, knock rocks downhill, talk loudly (don’t yell), knock on trees, etc. Bears have about as good hearing as humans do, so you want to make enough noise that you’d be able to hear from a fair distance.

3. Get comfortable with your spray.

Jonkel walks around playing with his bear spray, twirling it, shifting it from left hand to right, tossing it up in the air. He holds it in his left hand, then his right, and gets a feel for how easy it is to get in and out of the holster. In an ideal situation, you will never need your bear spray, but if you do, you don’t want to be as afraid of your bear deterrent as you are of the bear.

4. Set up camp.

Find a nice spot, a blow down with some nice brush. Cut off a few spruce limbs with a saw and make a circle around the tent with an extra by the tent door so you can hear if a bear or other predator cracks the sticks. Keep fire and cooking a bit far from tent. Some people hang bells on string every few feet. Keep in mind that deer and elk will come by to eat where you’ve gone to the bathroom, so do that away from tent too. There are also ways to make a backcountry electric fence, though it’s heavy.

If you are using a campsite used by people regularly, you don’t know what sort of traps other people have left for you, whether it’s having dropped a peanut or dripped bacon grease on a tree stump. Bears have a good memory and sometimes keep coming to the same spot every few days. Look for scratch marks on trees, rocks, and dirt, and keep in mind where you pee so you don’t put a salt lick right on your tent. When asked whether this means we should avoid common campsites in the backcountry, Jonkel dismissed the idea, saying it’s important to be bear aware, but we must also protect the environments we’re visiting by limiting our footprint. It’s a fine balance but one certainly possibly to maintain through smart actions.

5. Be dog-gone smart.

If you travel with a dog, you want a dog with a good, calm disposition and that won’t chase after an animal but will alert you to an animal in their space. You don’t want a dog that will bring a bear back to you by going after it. Bring your dog into your tent with you at night if possible. Their barking should be a good enough deterrent to keep the bears away, but you don’t want one out there on a lead protecting its family and turning into bait.

6. Ride smart.

“Don’t go blasting through an area where there are bears,” Jonkel said. “People end up smacking right into a bear, and that’s a death sentence.”

Also, don’t ride with headphones; speakers are okay because they alert the wild animals, but they’re also annoying. In Jonkel’s opinion, new trail systems that invite bikes to go fast are a bad idea in the backcountry. Bikes are not compatible with commonsense bear awareness.

“They are too fast and too quiet. Quieter and faster than a mountain lion,” he said, “enhancing the level of danger by 10 to 15 times by how fast they are moving.”

Bears often end up taking trails because they are also easy for the bears to travel compared to bushwhacking. Bears in traveling mode just put their heads down walking the trail and not paying attention to their surroundings as they are headed to their feeding or swimming spot.

I have only come into contact with bears from a relatively safe distance and have had the privilege of being distant enough to be in total awe of these animals without being afraid. I know I am incredibly lucky, though, and asked Jonkel to give me a rundown of best- to worst-case scenarios of bear encounters and how to react appropriately to ensure the best results for everyone. Here is his breakdown:

  1. In the best-case scenario, the bear hears you and you scare it off, and you never see it but see its tracks.
  2. You see the bear running off into the woods. 
  3. You see the bear on the trail before it sees you, and you turn away and it doesn’t see you and you make noises. It now knows you’re coming and moves out of the way so as not to be bothered. 
  4. You have a standoff and the bear doesn’t want to get off the trail. You have to get off the trail and give it a wide birth. About 10 yards is good. 
  5. The bear starts to charge and you use your bear spray. Read the instructions on your bear spray canister and hopefully you have been making yourself comfortable with the canister so you know what to do. Wait until the bear is extremely close so the spray doesn’t dissipate and become ineffective. “Think of bear spray like a skunk,” said Jonkel. “If the bear is getting way too close that it’s a legitimate threat (not just an emotional threat), then use it like a skunk spray. Don’t spray too soon.”

The vast majority of bears are not looking for conflict. They communicate by going in one direction and indicating they want you to go in another direction. I’m from a city, so my association with being nervous around creatures is much more from humans than animals, and Jonkel agreed it is a good comparison. If you see a person down the street and they give you bad vibes, you don’t spray them with mace from across the street just for the heck of it. You cross the street and see if they cross with you, you see if they start speeding up to get close to you, and then you react.

“Treat bears in their surroundings the way we treat humans in city environments,” said Jonkel. Be aware of your surroundings, not in such a rush to “win” the ride. 

I hope to have more articles throughout the summer about bear awareness and other good practices to help keep us all safe and able to enjoy the things we love. In the meantime, thank you so much to Mr. James Jonkel for taking the time to speak with me. This knowledge has helped calm my nerves, and I hope it’s helped calmed yours as well. Please take a moment to read our other blog posts on bear safety, linked above.

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