“That one there? Yeah.”
“Go walk up to it.”
“Go on. Just walk up to it.”
That’s the sort of dialogue I heard in my head with I read the title, “Behaviour of solitary adult Scandinavian brown bears (Ursus arctos) when approached by humans on foot.”
Large mammals and humans often don’t get along well, and this is true of bears, too. Bears are a threat to humans, and humans are a threat to bears. This particular bear species is not doing so well in the wild, with several countries having a few hundred to a few thousands.
The researchers located 30 bears that had been given radio collars. That way, the positions of the bears were known to the people walking towards them. Many, if not all of the bears, were approached multiple times, but those were at least two weeks apart. One to four people started almost a kilometer away from the bear. The observers’ path was always upwind of the bear, so the bear would have scent cues coming from the people and would be less likely to be surprised.
As part of the objective was to simulate hikers, the observers were keep a normal hiking pace and talk to each other. The authors noted, though:
When just one observer approached the bear, this person talked to him- or herself.
I imagine some poor bear sitting in the forest thinking, “Hoooooo boy. That one’s crazy.”
Most of the time, even knowing where the bears were, people only managed to see them about 15% of the time. Typically (80% of the time), the bears walked away from where they had been. None of the bears ever showed any signs of aggression towards people.
It’s good news that humans have little to fear from these bears. I do worry, though, that the bears might have a bit more to worry about from humans. I used to work in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta (one of my favourite places on the planet, by the way), and hikers were always being warned about bears. The black bears and grizzlies in the region, while not aggressive, are not exactly retiring, either. And humans in those parks have gotten themselves into all sorts of trouble by doing stupid things around bears. I do worry that if people think that Scandinavian bears are mostly harmless, people might do incredibly stupid things around the bears (trying to get a picture, and so on.)
Moen G, Støen O, Sahlén V, Swenson J. 2012. Behaviour of solitary adult Scandinavian brown bears (Ursus arctos) when approached by humans on foot PLoS ONE 7(2): e31699. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031699
Picture by ucumari on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.