Seeing a black bear can be one of the most memorable experiences of a wilderness
vacation. Bears seem almost human at times, partly because of their high intelligence and
partly because they can stand and sit like we do. Their diet is also somewhat like ours,
so fruit and nut shortages are problems for them just as they were for primitive people.
In years of crop failure, black bears are almost as quick as chipmunks to overcome their
fear of people and seek out food. And they are extremely adept at getting it. They have
color vision, acute hearing, and a keen sense of smell. They learn quickly and can
remember feeding locations for years. They can climb trees, bend open car doors, and pry
out windshields. They readily swim to island campsites. They adapt their lifestyles to the
availability of food, often becoming nocturnal to avoid confrontations with us rather than
sleeping at night like they usually do.
|Black bears can swim to island campsites.
The best way to prevent food pilfering in bear country is to avoid the bears. That
means by-passing campsites with bear tracks, fecal droppings, and scattered garbage. Bears
are regular visitors there. But if you must camp at such sites, keep a clean camp. The
less food odor in your camp the less chance the bears will linger when they make their
rounds. Wash dishes immediately and dump the water away from the camp. Completely burn any
edible garbage, including grease, rather than burying it or throwing it in a latrine.
Most black bears will not enter a tent with people in it, but it is still a good idea
to keep food and food odors out of tents and sleeping bags. To be on the safe side, wash
food from your face and hands before going to bed and hang clothing beyond reach of bears
if it has food or cooking grease on it. Perfume may mask human odor, preventing bears from
knowing a person is in the tent.
Bearproof food lockers and portable bearproof containers provide the best protection
for your food but are not yet available everywhere. The next best thing is to store food
in the trunk of your automobile or in sealed plastic bags suspended from a line between
horizontal poles 20 feet above the ground have been installed at some bear-prone
campsites. Sling the food bags over the line or pole so they hang 5 feet below it, at
least 10 feet from the nearest tree trunk, and at least 12 feet above the ground. Bears
have been known to leap from tree trunks to snatch food bags, and large black bears can
reach up nearly 9 feet without jumping. Slinging the bag over a branch rather than a line
or pole is even less likely to stop a bear; bears can break small branches and climb out
on large ones. If a branch must be used, sling the bag far out on the tip of a branch
larger than 4 inches in base diameter. Bears sometimes chew through ropes to get hanging
food bags, so it is best to counterbalance the bag with a second one to avoid tying the
rope where a bear can bite it. To retrieve counterbalanced bags, use a long stick to push
one bag up so the other will descend to within reach.
Where bears already know about food being hung, hanging it might be only a delaying
tactic to give you time to personally protect it. Pans hung on the food bag so they will
rattle if a bear shakes it can alert you. Nonburnable garbage should also be hung and
should be packed out when you leave.
Bears learn that coolers, backpacks, food bags, and other containers might contain
food. Keeping empty containers out of sight (in a car trunk or away from camp) or leaving
them open so bears can easily determine they are empty will reduce property damage. If the
containers smell of food, hang them with the plastic food bags to prevent bears from
carrying them off. Food odors in empty containers are minimized if the food was packed in
plastic bags that can be taken out of the containers and hung. When leaving camp, tie tent
flaps open so bears can easily check inside.
A black bear in camp requires caution but is not cause for great alarm. Most are timid
enough to be scared away by yelling, waving, and banging pans. But a few are too
accustomed to people to be bothered. Many people have lost their food and vacation by
being timid. Campers experienced with black bears simply chase them away before the bears
settle in to eating a week's supply of vacation food. They make sure the bear has a clear
escape route and then yell, wave, and rush to no nearer than 15 feet of the bear. This is
especially effective when several people do it together. If alone, a person might create
the illusion of numbers by throwing sticks through the underbrush. Don't feed the bears or
try to pet them. Touching a wild bear can elicit a nip or cuff.
|Black bear mothers sometimes bluff-charge but rarely attack people.
They usually run away.
A recent study by the National Park Service showed that bears sometimes are harder to
chase after they have begun eating. Some bears in that study gave low intensity threats
when people slowly approached closer than 15 feet, but all bears that were chased
retreated. No visitors were attacked. People are often more timid at night, but bears
retreat at night as well as by day. Capsaicin spray repellent usually persuades black
bears to leave when it is sprayed into their eyes. Capsaicin, the active ingredient of
cayenne peppers, has long been used by mailmen as a dog repellent. In more than 200
trials, no bear gave any sign of anger after being sprayed, sometimes repeatedly. Most
immediately turned and ran, stopping eventually to rub their eyes. The repellent irritates
the eyes for several minutes but causes no injury.
|Black bears usually run away when people chase them or
spray Capsaicin in their eyes.
Black bears can injure or kill people, but they rarely do. When pressed, they usually
retreat, even with cubs. Attacking to defend cubs is more a grizzly bear trait. (Grizzlies
live only in Alaska, northern and western Canada, and the Rocky Mountains south to
Yellowstone.) Black bear mothers often leave their cubs and flee from people, and those
that remain are more likely to bluff-charge than attack. Still, it is prudent to use extra
caution with family groups that allow close approaches because mothers are generally more
nervous than other bears. Nevertheless, chances of being attacked around campsites by any
black bear are small. During a 19-year study of bear/camper encounters in the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, only two injuries were reported in 19 million
visitor-days. The study included the year 1985 when bear nuisance activity was at a record
high. The two injuries were by one bear on September 14 and 15, 1987. The bear was killed
the next day.
|Both black bears and grizzlies can be brown, but no grizzlies live
east of the Rocky Mountains
Unprovoked, predatory attacks by black bears are rare but highly publicized. Such
attacks have accounted for all 23 deaths by noncaptive black bears across North America
this century. Most occurred in remote areas where the bears had little or no previous
contact with people, rather than in and around established campsites. The worst attack
occurred in Ontario in 1978 when a black bear killed and partially consumed three
teenagers who were fishing. Predatory attacks by black bears are usually done without
bluster or warning. People involved in such attacks can improve their chances by fighting
rather than playing dead. Deaths from such attacks average a little more than one every
four years across the United States and Canada.
||A sign of curosity, not anger, standing helps bears
see and smell.
By comparison, a person is about 180 times more likely to be killed by a bee than by a
black bear and 160,000 times more likely to die in a traffic accident. Each year there are
many thousands of encounters between black bears and people, often unknown to the people
because the bears slip away so quietly. Menstrual odors have been shown to be attractive
to bears, but there is no record of a black bear attacking a menstruating woman.
Dozens of minor injuries, some requiring stitches, have occurred across North America
when people petted or crowded black bears they were feeding or photographing. Under those
circumstances, black bears may react to people as they do to bears with bad manners, by
nipping or cuffing with little or no warning. Also, people who tease bears with food have
been accidentally injured when the bear quickly tried to take it. Fortunately, black bears
usually use at least as much restraint with people as they do with each other. Unlike
domestic dogs, which often are territorial and aggressive toward strangers, black bears
typically behave as the subordinate toward people when escape is possible.
|Most injuries from black bears are minor and result from feeding,
crowding, or petting. Most bears will not come this close. If one does, teasing it with
food is especially risky.
Black bears that want our food sometimes use threats or bluffs to get it, as has been
reported by campers, picnickers, and backpackers. The most common behavior of this sort is
blowing, which may be accompanied by clacking teeth, lunging, laid back ears, slapping the
ground or trees, and/or a short rush. The same behavior is used to scare other bears from
feeding areas. The sounds and actions are all done explosively, with effective results.
However, it is rare for a black bear to attack a person during or after such a
demonstration. All blowing bears observed by the author retreated when pursued. A less
common sound is the resonant "voice" of a bear. This is used to express intense
emotions (fear, pain, and pleasure), including strong threats. Black bears with ready
escape routes seldom use this threat toward people. Grunts are used in nonthreatening
communication to cubs, familiar bears, and sometimes people.
Encounters with bears are remembered and retold for years to come. Most campers in
black bear country never see a bear. Seeing one is proof that we still have extensive
enough forests for this wide-ranging animal. Keeping a clean camp helps to insulate bears
from the effects of our increasing use of the wilderness for recreation and helps prevent
bears from being needlessly relocated or killed as nuisances.
|Text and photos by Lynn L. Rogers.
(Information and reviews for this brochure were obtained from Federal, State, and
Provincial biologists, university researchers, and managers of national parks and forests
throughout the United States and Canada).