This week a prominent manufacturer of self-defense pepper spray and bear spray, Security Equipment Corporation, decided to venture into the field of bear bells. The constant jingle of these bells put some at ease, secure in the knowledge that bears—or any other wildlife—could hear the wearer long before they come into range. The most dangerous encounter with any species of bear is one that takes the animal by surprise. This is why experts often advise talking in a loud, but calm manner when a bear is sighted. However, do bear bells really work?
According to Helen Nienhueser, co-author of Fifty-five Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska, bells can more than justify their low price tag. She told the the Anchorage Daily News that she began wearing bells more often after a bear attack left two people dead near her cabin bordering Denali State Park several years ago. Jim Holmes, a public information representative for the Alaska Department of Game and Fish, also advises visitors to wear bells for their own protection.
”Bells are a 100 percent sure thing,” Holmes said. ”Everyone will agree that a lot of bear attacks occur because someone surprises the bears. If a mama bear hears bells, that’s not bird singing or water gurgling. She stands on her hind legs, gathers her cubs, and goes away. I’ve never heard anyone say that bells are background noise in the woods.”
But bear bells in practice have yielded some strange results. An experiment by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Tom Smith found that the use of bells may have a negligible effect on brown bears. Smith brought bear bells to a hunting blind in Katmai National Park and strung them up in the surrounding bushes. When he pulled on the bells, nearby bears did not react.
”This doesn’t mean bear bells don’t work,” he said. ”It just means the bears didn’t respond the way we thought they would. Not one of them reacted to the bells at all. It’s fascinating stuff.”
Smith graduated from ringing the bells lightly to shaking the devices for a loud, cacophonous noise. Of the 15 groups of bears that walked past during the experiment, not one moved to investigate the sound. This does not mean that the bears did not hear the ringing, but simply that they might have processed the noise in an unexpected way. It might be that the bears are reacting strangely to noises not often found in nature. When Smith snapped a pencil to imitate a twig breaking, he immediately drew the attention of the bears in the area. The researcher speculates that the bears might tune out the bells as nonthreatening, like the singing of birds.
This seems to conflict with a study that says bell bears are a variable in lowering the chances of a grizzly charge. Smith says more research is needed before a conclusive answer on the effectiveness of bear bells can be reached.
“I’d be disturbed if [bears] don’t register hearing bells,” Nienhueser said.
Despite naysayers, bear bells remain among outdoor retailers’ highest selling items. At only a couple of dollars per item, bear bells can be a very economical bear deterrent compared to a $30 or $50 can of bear spray.
‘We run out of them all the time,” said REI sales clerk Bri Pallister. ”A lot of tourists buy them. Kids like them too. And little babies are fascinated by them.”
While some may find the constant ringing an annoyance, others say the peace of mind is more than worth a few noisy trips.