How to Confront a Black Bear

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.29.41 PM copyAfter an extended trip in the Uinta Mountains, I ended up hiking out of a remote basin in the middle of the night. Earlier, I had decided to hike the twenty-something miles back to the trailhead all in one day. After throwing in some last-minute flyfishing, I finally left my basecamp at about ten o’clock in the morning.

When I wasn’t scrambling over giant Volkswagen-sized boulders, I was hiking at a near-jog to catch up on lost time. Darkness descended at about six o’clock, bringing with it a certain amount of paranoia not easily dispelled by my small flashlight.

My mind persistently wandered back to the bear tracks and other signs I had seen on the way up. Black bears make a habit of scraping the bark off tree trunks, collecting the insects trapped in the sticky sap. A few days earlier I had hiked through large areas of the forest where almost every tree was scarred with whitish patches scraped clean by a bear. Many of them were fresh. I knew that chances of an attack were remote–almost to the point of being non-existent, but a dense forest at 1 A.M. plays tricks on the brain.

Officially there are three species of bear that live within the borders of the United States: black bears, brown bears, and polar bears. Since black bears are the only species that live in Utah, this discussion will focus there.

Popular imagery has given black bears an unrealistically ferocious image, causing people to fear them more than need be.

Black bears are secretive creatures, preferring the dense cover of forest. If you see one, count yourself lucky. Black bears are the smallest of the three species found in North America, but I wouldn’t want to take one on in a wrestling match. Adult black bears stand about three feet tall at the shoulder, and measure five feet from nose to tail. Adults can weigh upwards of 450 pounds. In Utah, black bears range in color from the traditional black to a light brown or reddish blonde. Their facial structure is typified by a long, straight nose and large ears. In contrast, grizzlies have flatter, almost concave features and small ears.

Black bears are omnivores; they eat pretty much whatever they can digest. This primarily includes roots, bulbs, tubers, berries, and nuts. However, they will also eat insects and carrion. Actually, a bear’s diet is remarkably like ours, excluding the raw meat and insect larvae. Black bears will aggressively defend their food sources, so be wary if you come across dead animals in the backcountry.

Popular imagery has given black bears an unrealistically ferocious image, causing people to fear them more than need be. That being said, black bears can be dangerous creatures, and deserve a healthy amount of respect. One misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack in defense of cubs. Killing humans in defense of cubs is a grizzly bear trait. Mother black bears will snort, pound the dirt, and bluff charge. An angry black bear may charge several times, veering off at the last moment, before making a hasty retreat. Whatever sort of show the bear may put on, it’s vitally important not to run away.
Black bear tracks

Despite hundreds of thousands of encounters, black bears in North America kill less than one person every three years on average. For the sake of comparison, for every person killed by a black bear in North America there are about 16 deaths resulting from spiders, 24 from snakebites, 67 from dogs, 180 from bees and wasps, 374 from lightning, and 90,000 homicides in the U.S. alone.

Attacks do happen, but anecdotal evidence suggests that these attacks most often occur when people are attempting to feed, chase, pet, or bait black bears. In one such story, onlookers described a man filling his hands with tuna fish, and approaching a black bear just to see what a “bear lick” would feel like.

Experts agree that the best way to avoid an attack is to avoid bears in the first place. So how do you avoid bears? Well, the first option is to avoid the outdoors. If that’s not a satisfactory choice for you, professional bear-watchers say to hike during daylight, steer clear of animal carcasses in the backcountry, hang food supplies at night, and avoid bright colors and unnatural smells. “Campers put papaya-guava-honey shampoo on their heads and then wonder why bears are paying attention to them. Come on people, this is stupid,” says Tom Smith of the U. S. Geological Survey. Some simple discretion goes long way in avoiding unpleasant bear encounters.

Suppose you come face to face with a bear in the backcountry. What’s the best course of action? The one clear answer is that you should never turn your back or run. Doing either of these things is essentially asking the bear to chase you. If the bear approaches you, yell, wave your arms, throw rocks, and retreat slowly by walking backwards. Carry on as much as you can, but avoid making eye contact with the bear. Many animals perceive eye contact as a challenge or threat. Climbing a tree isn’t a great idea, since black bears are expert climbers. If you are physically attacked, fight back with whatever tools you have available. You want the bear to decide that fighting with you just isn’t worth the effort.

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