According to the Center for Wildlife Information, North America is home to three unique species of bear. During your Scouting adventures you may come in contact with one or more of these species. Unless you live west of the Mississippi however, you will unlikely ever see any bear other than the black bear. To help you recognize the differences MountainNature.com has information on how to distinguish between the black and grizzly bear. They have also have information to help you identify bear signs in the woods. A general rule I was taught while visiting Yellowstone National Park was to assume that all bears are grizzly bears since it is easy to confuse the two species at distance. Not all black bears are black and not all grizzly bears are the commonly seen grizzled blonde.
While seeing a wild bear in the woods is an experience you will never forget, you’ll want to be prepared to handle the encounter properly. The better prepared you are, the more likely this experience will be a good one for you and the bear. Remember you are in the bears home.
The following information may be all that you need to ensure that you and the bear safety survive the encounter. For detailed information on bear encounters, refer to Get Bear Smart details on encounters. The cover in great detail all the various types of encounters that you may have. All of the links above provide extensive information on bears and existing with bears.
You can download the Minsi Trails flyer on Bear Aware (.pdf) that contains the basics on preventing bears at camp and what to do if you meet a bear.
Preventing black bears at camp
Keep your camp clean and odor free.
Wipe tables and clean eating utensils thoroughly after every meal. Burn all grease off grills and camp stoves. In short, keep your tent, camper and sleeping bag free of all food smells.
Never leave food in your tent.
Store your food in safe or bear proof places. Place foods and coolers in your car trunk or suspend them from a tree branch.
Dispose of garbage properly.
Use the camp receptacles provided.
If you hike at dawn or dusk your chances are greater of meeting a bear or other wildlife.
In places where hearing or visibility is impaired (roar of fast-moving water, thick vegetation), reduce your chances of surprising a bear by talking or making noise.
What to do if you meet a black bear.
Stay calm. If you see a bear and it hasn’t seen you, leave the area calmly. While moving away, talk to help the bear discover your presence.
Get back. If you have a close encounter, back away slowly while facing a bear. Avoid direct eye contact, which a bear may perceive as a threat. Give the bear plenty of room to escape. Wild bears rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked. If you’re on a trail, step off on the downhill side and slowly leave the area.
Don’t climb or run. If a cub is nearby, try to move away from it. But be alert, there could be other cubs. Never climb a tree to escape because sows chase their cubs up trees when they detect danger. If you climb a tree, a sow may interpret that as an attempt to get her cubs. Stay on the ground and don’t run or make any sudden movements. Running may prompt the bear to give chase, and you can’t outrun a bear.
Pay attention. Bears will use all of their senses to figure out what you are. If they recognize you as a person, some may stand upright or move closer in their efforts to detect odors in the air currents. Don’t consider this a sign of aggression. Once a bear identifies you, it will usually leave the area. However, if the bear stays, it may pop its jaws as a warning sign that it’s uncomfortable. That’s a sign for you to leave. Back away and slowly leave the area. If you ignore the jaw popping warning, some bears have been known to bluff charge to within a few feet. If this occurs, wave your arms wildly and shout at the bear.
Fight back. Black bear attacks in the eastern United States are rare. However, they have occurred. If a bear attacks, fight back. Bears have been driven away when people have fought back with rocks, sticks, binoculars and even their bare hands.
How Dangerous are Black Bears (from Northern Research Station USDA Forest Service)
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to Protect Your Food and Property.
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 two trees.
Lines or 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.