It’s springtime in the Pacific Northwest – the tulips are blossoming, the birds are migrating north and all the critters are starting to come out of their hidey-holes. As the temperature warms the snow begins to melt in the mountains, slowly uncovering the dens of the Ursus Americanus.
We’ve all heard the stories about hungry bears coming out of their dens and looking for trouble, or of a mother bear protecting their cub. In this article I’ll share some facts about the American Black Bear, best practices for avoiding an encounter in the first place, and what to do if you encounter a bear.
The American Black Bear (Ursus Americanus)
The population of the American Black Bear is estimated to be around 300,000 bears in the contiguous United States. Most of the bears can be found along three major mountain ranges: the Appalachians, the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. They are also commonly found across much of Canada and throughout Alaska.
Black bears are remarkably smart and have good vision and excellent hearing as well as a keen sense of smell. Once grown, they travel solo. Unlike grizzly bears, black bears don’t have a territory that they defend. In general black bears are unlikely to be aggressive.
But what happens if a bear is confrontational? First let’s look at how to avoid conflict in the first place.
Avoiding a Bear Encounter
The best thing you can do for your and the bear’s safety is to avoid an encounter entirely. When on the trail, try to hike with or near other people. Make lots of noise as you travel – talk, sing songs and call out to the forest. Humans are top of the food chain and a bear will most likely avoid you if you’re broadcasting your presence.
If you spot a bear from a distance and they haven’t seen you, then back away slowly. Give the bear space and wait patiently until they leave the area.
Keep your rest stops and your campsites clean from trash, food waste and smells. Bears can smell up to a kilometre away and may be curious or entrepreneurial if not finding enough rations of their own. Use approved food-storage lockers, canisters or bags, or learn how to do a proper bear hang. Cook and eat away from your tent and be sure to put all “smellies,” including toiletries, in your food storage.
Conflict and Confrontation
Despite our best efforts, encounters with bears still occur. I’ve had an overly curious young juvenile come through my camp multiple times in one evening. I’ve also rounded a corner to find a bear on the trail. So what should you do?
First, and most importantly, STAY CALM. Take a breath and a second to assess the situation. The bear is probably just as surprised to see you. It will likely turn to look at you with it’s ears up, sometimes sniffing the breeze. This is a sign of curiosity, not aggression.
LEAVE THE CAMERA ALONE. As much as you’d love a snap of this encounter as proof, best practice is to deal with the bear immediately and not give it time to make its own conclusions.
SPEAK calmly to the bear. By doing this you distinguish yourself from prey and help it to identify you as human, not animal. However try to AVOID direct eye contact. This can sometimes be interpreted as an aggressive move.
COLLECT any food or personal items next to you. Don’t leave anything that may encourage the bear to remain in the area. Pick up small children, as they can sometimes be mis-identified as prey.
BACK slowly away, keeping an eye on the bear. Remain calm throughout the encounter.
If the bear decides to follow you then be prepared to STAND YOUR GROUND. Make yourself as big and scary as possible – wave your arms, clap your hands, and yell at the bear. In most cases, a black bear will stop and decide you’re not worth their attention. I’ve even had one turn and run away when I’ve done that.
Every Encounter’s Different
Just like humans, each black bear is an individual with a different range of experiences. Not every encounter is going to be the same. Bears are fascinating, intelligent and curious creatures. They were once the apex predator of the mountains and forests with vast territories across North America and Europe. Now they have only a small amount of wilderness left as their habitat.
We can more appropriately co-exist if we can learn to respect their space and what’s left of their home. The more familiar you are with bear behaviour as well as your own reactions, the better the outcome. The more you learn, the less afraid you’ll be when you encounter a bear, and you’ll certainly have a great story to tell!