Perhaps there is no animal that captures the imagination of hikers more than the bear, whether it is a grizzly or black bear.
Probably the most frequent questions I get about my outdoor pursuits revolve around bears. Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked by a bear? What will you do if you are attacked? Do you carry a gun?
No I am not afraid of getting attacked. I am more worried a mouse in a shelter is going to eat my last poptart! The chances of being attacked by a bear are quite slim. Depending on where you are hiking the only way you may even know if there are bears in the area is the scat or footprints on the trail or markings on the trees. The only weapon I carry is a small knife on my sog multi-tool and that is reserved for cutting up a block of cheese or summer sausage after a visit to the store. Black bears by nature are skittish and will remove themselves from your general area well before you might see them.
Black bears have shaggy black fur, a short tail and have more variation in color than any other mammal in North America. Color variation may include the familiar black we know, cinnamon, brown, blond, blueish-gray or even white. The body and legs are short with each foot having 5 toes. On each foot are strong, curved, non-retractable claws that measure about 1 1/4 inches in length. The black bear is the only bear in North America that can climb trees. The head is broad and their muzzle is brown, long and narrow. Their ears are rounded and they have small dark eyes. A white blaze is often present on the throat or chest. The average male black bear weighs in around 300 pounds, while the female averages about 170 pounds.
The American black bear can be found throughout North America with their range extending from Canada to Mexico.
A versatile diet allows black bears to live in a variety of different habitat types. They can be found in both coniferous and deciduous forests as well as alpine habitats. Typically they do not inhabit the Great Plains or open areas but may inhabit areas along open spaces if there is a healthy riparian habitat with vegetation and trees. They live just about anywhere they can find food, but largely occur where there are trees.
Black bears are omnivores whose diet consists of plants, fruits, nuts, insects, small mammals, fish, carrion and, yes, honey. When the opportunity avails itself, black bears will kill young deer or moose calves. Bears that are located near populated areas will often seek out human food waste as alternatives to their natural diet. These areas may include garbage cans, landfills or waste that has not been properly disposed of at campsites and shelters. Unfortunately, the bears that become acclimated to humans and their food often become nuisance bears which often results in them being relocated or culled if they persist as a problem.
The black bear population was severely diminished by over-hunting, habitat loss, and fragmentation in the past century. As of late the black bear has made a comeback in parts of North America, most significantly in the Eastern portion of the United States. It is estimated that their population has increased to around 800,000 in North America with an estimated 300,000 individuals in the United States.
The mating season for bears occurs during the summer. The gestational period is around 225 days. A sow commonly has 2 cubs, but litters of 1-6 are possible. The cubs are blind at birth and weigh 6-12 oz. and their bodies are covered with fine-textured gray hairs. Cubs are born during January and February and weigh less than a pound. The cubs remain with the mother for a year and a half or more, even though weaning occurs at 6-8 months. A female can only reproduce every two to three years, unless the young die and then the female can reproduce again after only a year.
How to Stay Safe
If you see a bear along the way:
- Keep your distance from the bear.
- Make your presence known by making noise.
- If the bear approaches you, carefully and slowly move away. Don’t turn your back to the bear.
- If you are with a group of people or children stay together.
- If the bear is in the trail, stop and wait for it to move on or take a detour giving the bear a wide berth.
- If photographing, don’t approach a bear to get the perfect shot. Nor should you try to entice any animal with food to get a perfect shot.
If hiking in a popular hiking area with a large bear population be aware that bears may be attracted to your food!
Limit the opportunity for bears to enjoy a nice meal:
- Don’t ever try to feed a bear, that is just plain stupid!
- Be prepared to pack up your gear and food quickly by only taking out the food you will need for your meal.
- Never leave your food, garbage or gear in the open or unattended.
- Store food and trash in bear boxes/lockers, canisters or storage bags and suspend the bag of food above the ground. It is recommended that you suspend the food at a height of at least 13 ft above the ground. Regardless of whether you use a single tree or two trees to suspend your food, make sure the food bag is 6 or more feet from the tree trunk.
- If you are car camping, put your coolers inside of the trunk of your vehicle.
- When you hit town, properly dispose of your garbage in bear resistant receptacles.
What if the bear charges?
- Don’t Run Away! Often a bear will make bluff charges and if you hold your ground the bear will usually back off.
- Speak to the bear in a clear and loud voice to let the bear know you are human.
- Make yourself look as big as possible and if you are with a group you can band together to make a more intimidating presence.
- If you have bear spray get it ready. Make sure that you know how to properly discharge the spray before you venture out into the wilderness. You don’t want to inadvertently hit yourself or the group with the spray and make matters worse.
Seeing black bears in the wild is a thrilling experience. Just remember that these are wild animals and you should treat your encounter as special and with caution.