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.

Image from Yathin S Krishnappa on the Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Are Bear Bells Effective?

  1. bear bells are a silly thing. Small, highfrequency ‘tinkling’ that easily gets drowned out by wind. But the central premise is a sound one., that if you make noise and announce yourself to bears you will have no trouble from them. Just be boisterous when you hike! Sing, talk to your hiking partners, and give a nice warm ‘yo bear!’ when you come near to a blind corner. No need for a silly bear bell. Just enjoy the wilderness and keep up a conversation, and pay attention. End of story.

    1. I don’t know seems like a lot of talking to yourself and singing. You might want to save some voice for the real encounter and bear bells seems like the ticket to giving your voice a break after all who could talk and sing for two hours straight while hiking without breaks thats just not realistic. Heres an idea bear bells, bear spray and talking then there’s a steady stream of noise plus protection while giving your voice a break with the occasional top 10 hits.

  2. Do make noise, but do carry bear spray! Ultimately, you’ll need a way to protect yourself should a bear decide to attack. Why not do it from 35 feet away!!

  3. Perhaps the non-reaction of the bears was due to fact the bells were stationary. Would the results be different if the bells were getting closer to the bears each time they rang?

  4. I guess you have heard the old joke. “What do you find in Black Bear poop? Berry seeds. What do you find in Brown Bear poop???

  5. Instinct: if the bell provides the “belief” in the wearer of its “effectiveness” the wearers “chemical” equation is different. Fortified courage, assurance, fostering projected emotional assurance, strength.

    These symptoms the animal will “sense” & avoid.
    Having a bell wearer, panic, fearful, dramatic, while “believing” in the bell, encourages naive people into dangerous situations.
    “Some” peoples emotional nature is not correct for the predatory environment.
    Animals are “tuned” to pick up weakness…

    But than the “if” Variable.. always the “if” factor. Entering a new product into the environment “bell” peoples founded fears of conditioning the animal to know human presence. So Technically, the animal “Could” indeed come to realize dinner.

    So, resolution, Sonic Technologies(s) the bear will hear particular “frequency” that is unpleasant, “not a horn” a digital signal. That would, confuse, disorient, the spacial balance of the psyche. That is clearly the correct tool, it would create a field of frequency saturating an effective range.
    *Like a domed invisible bubble*

    than, within this scope of resonance tuning to the “specific” frequencies of specific other animals as well, cougars, wolves, moose, squirrel.
    You can be safe.

    Futurism…fun philosophical studies.

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