When it comes to hiking and camping, or even just sleeping on the ground in Wyoming’s grizzly country, the most dangerous part of the endeavor is the drive to get there, a bear expert said.
Chuck Neal, a retired federal ecologist and grizzly conservation advocate who has spent considerable time in the backcountry of Wyoming and the surrounding region observing grizzlies, said he feels much safer around the bears than he does in a vehicle to get to the bears.
“Camping in a campground in grizzly territory is not nearly as dangerous as the drive to get there. You’re in a vehicle going at least 65 miles an hour, and there’s only a few feet of separation between you and vehicles traveling just as fast in the opposite direction. Now, that’s a dangerous journey,” Neal, who lives in Cody, told Cowboy State Daily.
“I’ve slept many a night in the backcountry in a tent or on the ground, and I never felt myself to be in danger,” he said.
Carelessness Of Others
Neal also has spent time in prime grizzly habitat in and around Glacier National Park in Montana.
Earlier this week, Montana resident Dale Fetz told Cowboy State Daily about a terrifying close encounter she had with a bear, likely a grizzly, in a Glacier Park campground. She said the bear was sniffing and digging right next to her tent.
Based on Fetz’s account, Neal said she did everything right. First, by keeping food and other potential bear attractants away from her tent, and then by keeping quiet and still when the bear was right next to her.
But her encounter highlights a problem with established campgrounds, he said. No matter how careful you are about avoiding bear trouble, you can’t count on everybody else exercising the same level of caution.
“Potentially, being in a campground is more dangerous than camping alone out in the backcountry," Neal said. "Campgrounds are centers of human activity, and humans by nature can be careless."
Even if everyone in the campground at the time Fetz was there was being careful, if previous campers had been slobs about leaving food or garbage around to tempt bears, the damage was already done, he added.
“She (Fetz) can’t roll back what her predecessors at the campsite may have done. She could have been camping in an area where other campers had been careless,” he said.
RVs Can Make Folks Feel Safer
So, folks staying in campgrounds might want to consider sleeping in their vehicles, as Neal said he does in such places, or staying in a hard-sided camper.
“If concern over bears in a campground effects people’s ability to sleep comfortably in a tent, then I advise them not to,” he said.
However, RVs can't go to wilderness areas where many grizzlies live. In those locations, you don't have a lot of options.
"You can’t haul a travel trailer or a Holiday Inn into the wilderness," Bill Brown, an insurance agent who lives in Dubois, said on Facebook when one reader asked why anyone would tent-camp in grizzly country.
By taking a few basic precautions, such as keeping campsites clean, people generally can stay safe in grizzly country, Neal said.
For those who do decide to take off into the deep wilderness, there are a few basic tips to avoid potential trouble with grizzlies or black bears, he added.
“Never sleep on or right next to a trail. I’d never do that. Just get off the trail and get back into a thick tangle of dog-hair pine and lay down on the ground to sleep. Nothing will bother you,” he said.
“The danger of bears is greatly exaggerated. They’re not trying to attack us,” he added.
It’s mostly just a matter of respecting the bears’ space and staying keenly aware of your surroundings, Neal said.
“Don’t be arrogant when you go into grizzly country,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.