Reducing risk of wild life encounters in the field

I’d like to start a conversation about the potential risks of wild life encounters while shooting landscape photography.

I’ve recently moved to British Columbia and many of the great photography opportunities are in the back country in grizzly, black bear and cougar country.

As landscape photographers we often want to be out shooting around sunrise, sunset or middle of the night And we often shoot alone meaning a solo hike in the back country in the dark.

For those in North America have you had many unwanted wild life encounters and do you think that solo back country travel is risky?

Any tips for avoiding interactions?

I have to start by pointing out that with changes in location and circumstances, strategies will need to be adjusted.

For over 40 years now we’ve lived over 30 miles from town smack dab in the middle of brown bear country with salmon streams within a mile on either side of us. We even have bears in our yard looking for trouble once in a while. “Trouble” being anything edible or attractive in any way. If we do our part to deny them, they have no reason to be there and seldom return. But their memories are incredible, and neighbors who have had problems report that almost to the day the same bear will return the next year looking for a revisit to the food source. I’ve also made countless ventures into the hills and along rivers here spanning days and weeks.

In my youth I also worked for 3 years in the hills in the heart of black bear country, having almost daily encounters. The only problems in the area occurred around campgrounds and homes, both with food issues.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in the hills in interior Alaska with grizzly bears, though not on a regular basis or for periods longer than about a week.

Only reason for telling you that, the biggest problems occurring with any of the 3 species involve habituation to food or threats to the bears or their cubs. I have little concern around bears well away from regular human presence and the potential for habituation. I have a lot of concern about surprising bears in any setting.

My formula is to seek locations away from reports of habituated bears and to make lots of noise as I move about. Best (or worst?) noise I’ve found is my typical off-key singing. Drives my companions nuts, but the bears seem to feel the same way and flee. Singing works for me because it’s easier to sustain the noise than trying to remember to say “Hey bear!” now and then. Bear bells seem to work about as well on bears as they would on other shoppers at Black Friday sales events in the city. I won’t depend on them. Bears have no clue that the bell might be anything but a new bird in the neighborhood, but they instantly recognize human voices.

Walking in the dark brings its own special issues, something I’ve encountered all too often when returning in the evening from overstays in the hills. I’ve BTDT early in the AM too, however. Little choice of treading in darkness on return jaunts, but there are choices when starting out. I can verify that the light of a powerful headlamp turns every mossy stump and boulder into a bear, leading to particularly enthusiastic arias. :blush: I use the light and make my yodels in the AM, but I’m not ashamed to turn around and leave when I encounter fresh bear sign.

Bottom line, pick your location, make your noise, bring your light, and retreat when possible. I’ve been charged by bears on a number occasions when ignoring my own rules, and I can verify that it will make an indelible impression and improve your resolve to return to the rules.

Notice I haven’t said a thing about guns or bear spray? That’s because my attitude is clear: We CHOOSE to be there, and I don’t care to make a bear pay for my mistakes.


@Hank_Pennington thanks for your detailed and informative post.

It sounds like bear encounters can be largely mitigated by being aware and following good practices.

Do you think that a similar method applies for cougar avoidance?

Perhaps I’m best of starting to hike on semi cloudy days and hoping for interesting diffused or speculator light to get comfortable in this environment before shooting alone around dusk

Our place in the Rockies has cougars each spring and early summer. We’ve seen them as close as 30’ from our cabin while we were outside, closer a couple of times on casual walks, and we see fresh tracks on most walks. No problems yet, but that doesn’t make us experts. My wife is usually with me, and groups reputedly mitigate attacks, so that may help. We’re mostly seeing young males passing through the area each spring/summer in search of territories. From the larger tracks we come across as well, I’d say they’re given good reasons to keep moving.

Injured, ailing or aged individuals would be a different matter, but from the abundance of deer and elk around us it’s prime habitat and the unfit would have trouble defending the territory. We just haven’t had any yet. While we’ve never lost calves to cougars, we have lost a few to coyotes in some calving seasons. I’m unwilling to skulk through our brushy property early and late, relying on my arias to alert cougars to my identity and presence as a matter of form if I am out in the dusk, and perhaps that’s part of our success.

There’s collective wisdom for dealing with cougars including group travel, noise and vigilance for signs of the infirm. I apply the practices and so far they have worked, but again, I’m no expert.

I hear people getting all spun up about bobcats too, and I have to laugh. Though we have them as well, I count myself as fortunate any time I even glimpse one. They’re a non-issue for me, they’re so shy and retiring. Feral dogs? Perhaps the scariest for me, and during confrontations I’ve shot a few. Sad, but they’re more unpredictable than truly wild animals in my experience. Unskilled hunters, hungry and aggressive in all my encounters.

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Thanks hank.

I’m new to the continent I’m getting used to the local fauna

I always carry bear spray on a holster from a belt when I’m out and about in Alaska. I’ve never had to use one on a bear but I have discharged one to see how it works. It shoots out it’s irritant much like a fire extinguisher. Getting an eye full of that should stop any of those three, even if it’s mauling you.

The rule with cougars is to never run away from them. Walk backwards while facing them. They much prefer to attack you from behind on to your back.

The joke we were told in Alaska is that you don’t have to outrun an attacking grizzly, just the guy next to you.

Hav a safe trip. Be prepared but once prepared don’t think about it any longer. It can negatively impact your experience.

Igor, I am sorry to say that the only thing that will stop a bear or mountain lion that is already attacking is a large bore handgun–10mm, at a minimum, assuming you can reach it to draw and fire.

Edit: I just did a little research. For Brown or Grizzly bear, the recommendation is .44 magnum, or larger caliber. A .357 magnum, or 10mm will likely stop a mountain lion.

If one decides to be armed, a reliable weapon and training is absolutely essential.

If one is armed, hopefully they will have stopped the animal before it reaches them.

The best strategy is avoidance.

The bear spray vs firearms controversy seems to come down to gun ownership. Those who argue for using firearms have strong feelings about the second amendment. The scientific data however show that bear spray thwarts attacks more effectively and result in fewer injuries.

Why? I think it’s because it’s more difficult to make a kill shot on a moving target (charging bear) and if you don’t kill it you actually enrage the animal even more.

I remember reading on Alaskan forums that bears just lick the spray off, they like it so much. No truth to that.

Right you are. I own both and alternate depending on circumstances. Prime circumstance being wind. Having launched spray at a brown entering our camp from upwind, I got to test the full effectiveness of bear spray. I think the bear got tired of the show and simply left. You can only watch a guy rolling on the ground screaming and crying for so long before losing interest. :smile:

Best solution is still awareness and caution. I’ve been working and recreating around bears for right at 50 years, and I’ve had agency training and official certification as a bear guard. The scariest thing to me in the woods is not a bear, rather it’s someone packing bear spray or a gun and not having a clue when and how to use either. I have little doubt that their companions are more likely to be thwarted than bears.

How about laughing gas? The bear can’t stop laughing and you make your getaway. I’m going to offer my idea to the Park Service.

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The only thing I’m shooting with out there is my camera!

I think that bear spray, caution, awareness and making noise is great advice.

I think I’ll start my back country exploration by 4wd and day hikes when the clouds can provide interesting light. Then I think I’ll move to staying in back country cabins and then snow shoeing in winter.

It seems that avoiding night time hiking is one proactive step to avoiding an encounter

Good strategy. I’d nonetheless put a good headlamp and spare batteries in your kit. It’s one thing to avoid predawn departures, but another altogether to return before dark at the end of a long day!

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I have researched this a bit and the science does show that spray is the more effective deterrent. And even the best shooters would have a tough time with a kill shot at a charging bear or mountain lion. They are FAST.

Oh yeah.

My last encounter was startling a sow brown bear and cubs at about 45’. She dropped her head and cut that to 15’ in TWO roaring hops. It happened so fast, if she’d decided on 3 hops rather than 2, I’d have been beaten up pretty thoroughly. She was 15’ away in less time than it took for me to drop my hand to my belt, much less disencumber what I had waiting there. She covered 30’ in half the time a good horse could do it with a running start, much less from a dead stop.

The rule of thumb is, whatever protection you carry, it’s likely useless if it’s not already in your hand when you need it. That returns us to the point that prevention and avoidance are the best possible strategies.

Sounds like you saying you would rather be dead than shoot a bear. Hand guns can also provide a big noise deterrent to scare something away, and help a team locate and rescue you.

Not rather be dead. I’ve never shot a firearm so I consider it useless to acquire a hand gun and practice using it for the low chance of an unavoidable encounter.

I’ve been in Canada 3 months. I’d be suprised if they let me get a gun license a

Ummmm… Don’t put too much faith in that old tail. In another camp incident when the wind was all wrong for bear spray I put two rounds from my 375 H&H rifle between a bear’s ears and a couple of inches above its skull from less than 30’. It didn’t even blink.

If you’re dependent on noise, carry a shotgun loaded with “cracker” shells. But use it wisely. Shots that go past the bear and explode behind it are very likely to give results you won’t like if the bear reacts at all. :open_mouth: Cracker shells should be shot into the ground in front of the bear. I’ve had mixed results with them, with young bears fleeing, but their elders not giving two whoops and a nickel about the noise.

Likely many undesirable non bear creatures could be scared away from the noise of a gun, even two legged ones.

I would not depend upon a weapon report to deter a critter. It may work–it may not. If you have to shoot, shoot to stop the threat.

Just a note here: If you fire a weapon to scare away a person, you could be jailed for ‘brandishing’, or higher charge. You would have to prove the person was an imminent threat to life. It can get sticky real fast.

Keep in mind that bear spray is most effective when inhaled by the target. It’s not about the eyes necessarily. I’ve been in a car when a can went off and was coughing for the next six hours.