Bear Country Safety Advice

The weather is nice, and the bears agree with you—now is a wonderful time to be outside. Follow bear country safety advice whether living or enjoying the great outdoor in or near bear habitat areas.

Chuck Bartlebaugh of Missoula, Mont., based nonprofit Be Bear Aware says there is an easy equation to remember when you’re recreating outside—whether it’s in town or in the trees, WILDLIFE + DISTANCE = SAFETY.

Black bears aren’t just in remote areas. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) removed a bear one block south of I-90 just two years ago. Biologist Carrie Lowe points out that “if they can show up there, they can show up anywhere.”

Just last summer, a black bear in a residential backyard in Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood, who took refuge in a tree, was caught by WDFW and released back into the wild.

Bears are often reported in areas like Dishman Hills and Nine Mile Falls, but Bartlebaugh’s favorite story is about the bear that settled down and was sleeping under the Red Wagon slide in Riverfront Park (the bear was moved without incident).

Live safe in bear country: Secure outdoor garbage. Bears can wander into residential areas when there are attractants. // Photos: Shutterstock.

Learn How to Be Bear Aware

Be Bear Aware was founded by Bartlebaugh in 1976, and since then the Montana-based organization has produced some of the best bear education materials.

They also offer courses in how to deploy bear spray in varying attack situations, and how to handle encounters with bears, cougar, moose, rattlesnakes, and other wildlife. Trainings cover how to use bear spray to deter an attack from a surprised bear as well as encounters where there’s more distance.

Always, the primary goal is to learn how to maintain distance and avoid an encounter in the first place. The key is learning what bear sign looks like: bark smoothed from rubbing, hair or scratches on trees, shredded stumps. What does bear scat look like? Google it with your family: it’s a fun way to start the conversation.

Bears are attracted to smells, so store food, fishing tackle, harvested fish or game, and even your toothpaste in a bear resistant container or inside a locked vehicle if you are out overnight. Whether you are hiking, camping, or mountain biking, make sure to carry bear spray, and have it in a place where you can reach it easily.

Bikers move fast through the landscape and need to pay special attention to being aware of any strong smells (bear, or dead animal that a bear might feed on). Bartlebaugh recommends calling out in a way that is non-threatening and human sounding—music will not do the trick, voices will.

Bartlebaugh also has specific suggestions for people in residential areas. “It’s all common sense. Clear the brush away from the house so you have a good view (this helps with fire danger too). Garbage needs to go out only on pick-up day, and if you can, get a bear-resistant container for trash. Also, get rid of attractants like fruit that’s fallen from fruit trees.”

WDFW Biologist Carrie Lowe says that rural residents with backyard chickens need to be especially aware because the birds are attractive to bears. She emphasizes that as Spokane continues to grow, “more houses are on the outskirts of bear country. Anyone should expect to potentially see a bear where they live.”

Bartlebaugh also noted that wildlife feeding and people’s desire to get up close and interact with wildlife is a big problem and the primary reason behind most human–wildlife conflicts. “We need to learn to enjoy wildlife for what they are and not what they will do for donuts.” A culture of respect and avoidance is key, not just for bears, but for all wildlife.

Another warning, brought up by both Lowe and Bartlebaugh, was to always keep your dog on leash in wild areas. Bears rarely attack humans, but according to Lowe, a large percentage of those attacks are when a dog is off leash and the bear chases the dog back to the owner. This is also an issue with moose, who are known to get aggressive with dogs.

Chuck Bartlebaugh holding a can of bear spray with outstretched arms, with thumb pressing on top of spray can, demonstrating how to deploy bear repellent spray during a training session.
Bear country safety knowledge: Chuck Bartlebaugh demonstrates how to deploy bear spray during a training session. // Photo courtesy Be Bear Aware.

Use Bear Spray the Right Way

Be Bear Aware recommends that you carry an EPA-approved bear spray cannister that will spray for at least seven seconds and travel at least 30 feet. Knowing that distance and how far your cannister will spray matters. Importantly, the group states in their trainings that how you deploy bear spray is determined by the bear’s agitation level and how far away the bear is. (Learn more: “Bear Spray Science.”)

In addition to courses on bear encounters and how to deploy bear spray, Be Bear Aware has developed a Train-the-Trainer program where anyone can take the course and then learn to become a trainer themselves. This program has expanded in Montana and is being introduced here in eastern Washington.

For more information, contact Be Bear Aware at or call 406-239-2315.

Find more stories about bears and other North American wildlife in the OTO archives.

Share this Post

Scroll to Top