Kincaid black bear confrontation caught on camera: A case study in human-bear encounters
An encounter between a group of pedestrians and an overly curious black bear at Kincaid Park ended with both parties walking away unscathed Sunday in what a local wildlife official says was likely the best outcome considering the potential alternatives, and it was all caught on camera.
A video posted to Facebook Sunday night shows a group of people huddled together in a defensive posture in an embankment on one side of the bike path running through Kincaid Park, standing opposite a black bear staring back at them.
Off screen, on either end of the trail were several other pedestrians and bicyclists watching according to Taylor Carter, one of the members of the group confronted by the bear in the video.
Carter says the group of eight — five adults, two toddlers, an infant and a dog — started their walk around 1 p.m. Sunday, to the Neptune Planets on the Coastal Trail. As they began walking back, between mile 7.5 and 8, other people on the trail started warning them about a bear.
"We first saw the bear rounding the corner...just walking on the trail like a giant dog, like he was familiar, he knew that trail," Carter told KTUU Monday. "We had nowhere to go at that point, by the time we saw him, because we didn't want all of our backs to be towards him, not to know where he's gonna go."
The group decided to move down an embankment into a narrow ditch, while three of the groups members who were carrying firearms took up defensive positions in front of the others.
"What wasn't videoed was the bear continually tracking us and backing us into the ditch," Carter said. "What you saw after was just us in the ditch at a point where we were like 'Shit, we're gonna have to kill this thing or somebody's gonna get hurt.'"
Where others may have pulled the trigger, Carter says the group was prepared to stand its ground without firing a shot unless the bear began charging or behaving aggressively.
Members of the group discussed firing a warning shot when the bear first began following them, but not knowing where other people were, how many of them may or may not be armed, or how they may respond to the sound of gunfire, ultimately opted not to.
"We had actually discussed this a couple days prior, like 'what are we gonna do if we come face-to-face with a bear and the kids and the dog?'" Carter said. She says that she and her friend seen confronting the bear in the video had come up with a plan for just this scenario. "It just worked out that we had, by happenstance, chatted about it, and we weren't in a panic, and we were able to contain everybody."
After the confrontation seen in the video, one of the armed members of the group stood watch while the bear retreated into the woods while the others in the group made their way down the trail, warning everyone they encountered along the way.
"From what I see, they did most things right, they stood their ground," said Wildlife Biologist Dave Battle with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "In this video, the part that I saw at least, they are standing their ground, they have their deterrents ready, whether that's a gun or bear spray. They were talking to the bear. They were making sure that it knew what they were."
Battle says that if the group had been carrying bear spray, the bear was close enough at that point to deploy it.
The topic of bear deterrents — firearms and bear spray in particular — is a contentious one. Battle says both have their advantages and disadvantages, and neither is a magic wand.
People who choose to use firearms as bear deterrents have to have a large enough caliber to defend themselves with, and enough skill and comfort to fire accurately at a moving target during what Battle says would be "the most stressful situation of your life." Battle says he generally doesn't recommend bear spray instead of a firearm as a deterrent for someone who is skilled and experienced handling firearms. For those who aren't, if the goal is to get a bear away from you, bear spray can get the job done.
"The great thing about bear spray is that you don't have to be as accurate, and it's well-documented for driving bears off, putting them from a fight response to a flight response, so it's a much easier thing for most people to use."
Battle says which deterrent you choose matters less than having it out where it's easily accessible.
"There's a lot of times that I see people on the trail, I might be investigating a bear incident, I start talking to them and they say 'Oh yeah, we've got bear spray' and I say 'I don't see it,' and it turns out it's in the bottom of their pack," Battle says. "Well, they wouldn't be able to get to it if they actually needed it, so I always try to get people to wear it on their belt or on a harness or something like that, so that they have quick access to it."
Battle says there have been a number of incidents around Anchorage this year involving people running from bears.
"Most of the ones that I've talked to that did run from the bear said they knew better, they knew they were not supposed to be running from a bear," Battle said. "It's just an instinct that when they saw the bear, they got scared and they ran."
He says the instinct to run from a bear is strong, but that it's "always the wrong thing to do" because it's impossible for a human to outrun a bear, and because running from a bear triggers a chase instinct. Battle says that having a deterrent prepared, whether a firearm or bear spray, ultimately gives people the confidence to stand their ground when confronted by a bear.
"I think that's what happens a lot of times with people who are running from it, it's a helpless feeling to be that close to that big an animal that you know could do so much damage, but if you have the deterrent, at least you have options," Battle said. "You have a deterrent in your hand that gives you more confidence to stand there and do what you know you should be doing — not running, just standing your ground."