If you camp, hike, or drive through areas where these creatures live, play it safe and learn as much as possible about their habits.
By Knolan Benfield
Sighting a black bear in the wild is thrilling. It changes an outing into an adventure. Most of us would like to see a bear, but on our own terms — from the safety of a vehicle. But what happens if our close encounter of a frightening kind is way out on the trail? What do we do then?
I have photographed and written about the American black bear and other wildlife for years and have experienced several startling encounters along the trails. The most amusing happened in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My wife, our teenage daughter, and I were walking on a trail with another couple one mild day in May — mating season for black bears. We were a mile or so from our RV when a black bear strolled out of the forest and sat down in the middle of the trail perhaps 100 feet in front of us. Naturally, we stopped dead in our tracks. A second and much bigger black bear ambled out of the woods, walked a couple steps in our direction past the first bruin, and then stopped and began to sway side to side, with its head lowered.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman in the other couple prepare for a quick departure from the scene. “Jill, don’t run,” I whispered. Her husband emphatically repeated, “Jill, don’t run, don’t run.” Then he asked me, “Why shouldn’t she run? Why shouldn’t she run?”
Well, Jill did not run; neither did the bears. After giving us all a thorough visual assessment, they slowly padded back into the wilderness, and we all lived to tell the tale.
Had Jill run, one or both of the bears probably would have given chase, since that is a natural instinct. They would have won the race and she would have lost.
Where Are The Bears?
Black bears are found in almost all of Canada, and in at least 40 U.S. states. Their range extends down to northern Mexico. Some estimates say at least a half million black bears live in North America. Some subspecies, such as the Florida black bear and the Louisiana black bear, are considered threatened populations. Eastern black bears are usually forest and swamp dwellers, and out West, the bruins like mountainous areas below 7,000 feet.
While hiking along a trail in black bear country, you may find bear tracks, bear scat, and maybe a bear tree.
Black bear tracks: The tracks look as though they were made by a flat-footed person wearing moccasins, except the small toe is on the inside and the big toe is on the outside. The front paws are approximately 5 inches wide and 4 inches long. The hind foot is also 5 inches wide, but is 7 to 9 inches long.
Bear scat: Bear scat will contain almost anything, since the black bear is an omnivore. Bear droppings look like those from a large dog, but have flat ends.
Black bears eat berries, fruit, insects, leaves, twigs, small mammals, snakes, and carrion. They tear apart logs for grubs, beetles, crickets, and ants. And, yes, bears really do love honey. A bear will rip a honey tree apart and eat the honey, honeycomb, bees, larvae, and all.
A black bear will work no harder than necessary to find food (a trait it shares with some people). Black bears usually do not attack deer unless the animals are ill, injured, or very old or young and easy to catch.
Bear trees: You may come upon a tree with the bark stripped off from just above head height. If coarse black hair is stuck to it, you have found a “bear tree.” Both male and female bears make bear trees. They scratch their backs and heads on the tree, leaving not only their hair, but their scent as well. More than one bear may use the same tree.
One other thing you may observe on a trail in black bear country is … a bear (Ursus americanus). Bears are so funny and cute with their shuffling walk and animated expressions that it is easy to underestimate how strong, dangerous, and deadly they can be. They can roll a large log over with a single paw. They can run up a tree and jump out of one from 30 feet high without any apparent injury to themselves. They are strong swimmers.
Think of them this way: a black bear can outrun, out-climb, out-jump, out-swim, and out-fight any man alive, and they can out-think some people, too.
A black bear is particularly dangerous when with cubs; when feeding (or hungry); and when injured, breeding, or surprised. It is equally as dangerous when it has lost its fear of people (or if a person has no fear of it), or if it feels cornered. The bear is the only one who knows if it feels cornered; it could be while it’s standing in the middle of a field.
Mating season is one of the few times adult bears will put up with each other’s company. Black bears are loners unless they are with cubs, or during mating season — or when gathering to chow at a garbage dump.
Black bears are most active at dawn and dusk. Like any intelligent creature, they may take an afternoon nap. Their range covers 8 to 10 square miles or more. Black bears are nomadic and wander their home range following animal or human trails. They leave their home range only if food becomes scarce.
Black bears generally give humans a wide berth and rarely attack without provocation. Only approximately 32 human deaths have been attributed to black bears in all of Canada and the United States combined since 1980.
That said, don’t give them a reason to visit your campsite. Don’t leave food scraps in the campfire, and have food and coolers out only when needed. If a bear does drop in, watch from your vehicle and let it have whatever it wants. A powerful wild animal that has lost its natural discomfort around people is dangerous. Park policies vary, but most will move a problem bear only twice. After that, the only thing left to do is to kill the bear for doing what’s natural.
We can help the black bear by reporting potential problems, such as any feedings, to park rangers, and we can educate our children to respect wildlife.
Bears don’t like surprises, so let them know you’re coming if you are hiking along a trail. Wear a bell that sounds as you walk, and, if you’re not alone, be sure to talk to your companions as you hike. That way, you and the bear will probably never meet.
If, in spite of your noisemaking efforts, you do meet a black bear, make more noise. Shouting and screaming (which may occur naturally upon bumping into a bear) may scare the bear away. Pick up any young children with you. Stand up tall; look as big as you can. But do not look directly at the bear. Direct eye contact may be interpreted as a threat. Keep your group tightly together (this almost certainly will not be a problem), and slowly back away. The bear will do the same, assuming it has read about bear behavior and knows what is expected of it.
The bear may give a false charge. It may stand up on its hind legs, which is extraordinarily intimidating. If it shows no intention of backing down, throw rocks or sticks at it as you continue to back away. Do not squat or kneel, as doing so will make you appear smaller (pray standing up). If you can leave your backpack behind, do so. The bear may think there is food in it. You’ll most likely be okay.
If a black bear does attack you, try to keep your stomach and head covered. Fight back with anything — a knife, rock, or stick.
Chances are very good you’ll never have to use the advice in the last paragraph. Most of the time, we can enjoy beautiful black bears from a distance and take pleasure in the thought that they are out there in the wilderness, right now, living their lives and just doing what comes naturally.
More Bear Facts
- Male black bears measure up to 3 1/2 feet across at the shoulders. A male may stand 6 feet tall and weigh up to 600 pounds, although most are smaller. Females are smaller as well but are equally dangerous.
- Black bears are not always black. They range from black to almost white. Some have a white splash on their chest. Their vision is poor, but their sense of smell is powerful.
- Black bears breed from May through July and “den up” between October and January, depending on how far north they live. This is not hibernation. They sleep lightly and can be instantly awake.
- Mothers and cubs leave the den from March to early May. The mother raises her cubs on her own. They stay with her through their first winter, and some stay until the next fall. Baby bears play constantly. Mom runs them up a tree when danger approaches.
- The black bear’s ability to eat almost anything and to move quickly and quietly helps it survive even in developed areas. It rarely makes vocal sounds. It can disappear like a ghost. I have seen people unknowingly walk by a bear not 20 feet away.
- Black bears live from 12 to 15 years in the wild. They have few enemies and fear almost nothing.
- If you do encounter a bear, remember that these animals are wild. Stay in your vehicle or close to it, if you can. Come no closer than 50 yards from the animal if possible. (That’s half the length of a football field away.) If there are several people watching the animal, do not surround it. Make no sudden moves, and when you do move, move slowly. Do not run. If the animal changes its behavior, you are too close.
Dangers From Other Wild Animals
White-tailed deer or mule deer, particularly antlered males, can inflict serious damage on a person. Watch out for the sharp hooves of both male and female deer.
Elk, by their size and huge antlers, cause most people to stay back.
Moose should not be approached. Their antlers weigh up to 70 pounds each and can pack a tremendous wallop.
Bison (buffalo) are the largest terrestrial animals in North America, yet they appear to be gentle. They are dangerous. More people are injured each year in Yellowstone National Park by bison than any other animal.
Coyotes pose little danger to humans. They are so wily, they are rarely seen. If you come upon one, stand still a moment. More than likely, the coyote will do the same, then disappear from sight.
Wolves are so rare that the odds of accidentally encountering one are small. If you do, just treat it as a big coyote.
Mountain lions (cougars) are extremely rare. If you are attacked by one, there is little you can do except to fight back.
Grizzly (brown) bears will attack unprovoked, although it is rare. Since they cannot climb trees, you should, although a grizzly may shake the tree or try to push it over. If you must defend yourself, lie face down, curl up, and keep your head covered. Carry pepper spray, a hunting knife, and a hiking stick.
Many other wild animals may be a threat as well. Remain alert, take precautions, be prepared, and don’t go out alone. The odds are in your favor. Millions of people visit national parks and forests each year and see wildlife, and few ever have a problem — although most will have a story to tell.