Coexisting with Black Bears

 


The following topics will be discussed on this page:

  • Who is the black bear?
  • Are black bears dangerous to humans?
  • How can I keep bears away from my property?
  • Will hunting solve nuisance bear problems?
  • What should I do if I encounter a bear?

Throughout our history, humans have viewed black bears with fascination, awe, and sometimes fear  While the North American continent is home to three species of bears (black bears, brown (grizzly) bears, and polar bears) black bears are the most common species in the populated regions of the continent.  As a result, black bears are often subject to exploitation by humans, including recreational hunting and poaching to supply the illegal trade in bear parts.

Black bears were hunted aggressively in the latter part of the 20th century, but protection measure enacted via legislation and regulation have helped to save the species from local extinction.  As humans move into bear habitat, conflicts arise and black bears typically come out on the losing end.  But humans know enough about bear behavior to develop a comprehensive strategy for solving these conflicts and peacefully coexisting with black bears.


Q: Who is the black bear?

A: The black bear (Ursus americanus) is a large, charismatic mammal who prefers old forests dominated by hardwood trees and shrubs that produce the fruits, nuts, and other plant parts needed for food.  Black bears prefer a rugged habitat consisting of dense thickets, some water sources, and rocky outcrops. The black bear's range can vary widely, depending on availability of food sources, but typical core home ranges are two to fifteen miles. Bears have been recorded traveling well in excess of 100 miles to search for food in lean times.

While black bears are omnivorous, they prefer to eat fruits, nuts, and plants. Although their teeth, claws, strength, and size make them look like predators, they seldom eat any animal larger than insects, preferring plants to meat. They can run quite quickly over short distances-a lean bear can run 30 miles per hour in a short burst.


Q: Are black bears dangerous to humans?

A: Despite a sometimes shady reputation perpetuated by popular media sensationalism, the black bear is not aggressive. Cases of black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. When humans come upon a black bear in the wild, the bear's behavior is commonly misinterpreted to be aggressive. For example, when a bear wants to get a better scent or see someone better, the bear may stand on his or her hind legs. If a bear feels threatened he or she may growl or even mock-charge a human.  But these instinctive behaviors do not represent actual threats to humans.  While there have been a handful of people who have been killed by black bears in North America in the last century, people have a much greater chance of being killed by lightning, bee stings, dog bites, or hunting accidents. Black bears should, of course, be treated with respect, distance, and caution, but they should not be feared.


Q: How can I keep bears away from my property?

A: With the exception of very remote areas in the western US, human development has made it virtually impossible for a black bear to travel within his or her home range without approaching someone's property. But people living in black bear habitat around the country have developed many creative, nonlethal techniques for solving human bear conflicts. Bears are opportunistic eaters, raiding trash cans and other human food sources if the opportunity presents itself. Once a bear learns of an easy food source, he or she will be back. If, on the other hand, food sources are not easily accessible the bear will move on to an easier target. It is incumbent upon those living in bear habitat to take steps to bear-proof their property.

FOOD AND GARBAGE

Bears have a strong sense of smell and are easily lured by the odor generated by trash, barbecues, and dog and cat food left outside.  If you live in bear country, don’t leave food outside. Store outside garbage in bear-proof containers, or put it outside just before the garbage pick-up time. Even with bear-proof garbage containers, garbage should be taken to a dump site at least twice a week. Birds who feed at bird feeders typically leave a mess of spilled seeds and nuts on the ground, which can also attract bears. Clean the area under a bird feeder regularly to minimize this risk. Suet balls can solve the spillage problem but because of their high fat content and strong odor, they will likely attract curious bears more than seeds or nuts will. As with garbage, if a bear cannot easily get to the food in a bird feeder, he or she will likely move on to another, easier food source.

TREES AND GARDENS

Fruit trees and vegetable gardens can also attract bears. Trees can only be protected individually if the limbs, leaves, and fruit do not hang below a height of seven or eight feet. If this ground clearance is available, an individual tree can be protected with fencing or other techniques that keep bears from climbing the tree. For low hanging trees, tree groves, and vegetable gardens, the best solution is sturdy, high tensile woven wire fencing at least six to seven feet high. The fence posts must be sturdily mounted and the fencing wire must be heavy enough to withstand the weight of a climbing bear. Ideally the fence should be angled out at the top foot to keep bears from scaling the fence. 

Another fencing option is the installation of an electric fence. Because bears can learn how to get around them, electric fences are more of a "behavioral barrier" than an absolute barrier, which means that if they're not properly maintained, bears will learn how to get through them. The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension has published a good example of electric fence installation for bears on the internet at: www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06519.html

Compost used for vegetable gardens may also prove irresistible for bears because compost generally starts out as food waste. The odor from decomposing food waste is particularly strong and of great interest to a bear. Compost containers must be bear-proof and should be stored far from the house. barbecue grills clean or stored in closed sheds or other buildings.  Hunting advocates often claim that bear nuisance complaints are an indication of a large bear population. But humans can have a direct affect on local bear populations simply by keeping artificial food sources, such as garbage, away from bears.  Healthier, fatter sows will have larger litters.  The results of a Minnesota study indicate that bears who feed on garbage will have litters with an average of four cubs, compared to an average litter size of two and a half cubs for bears who eat only natural food supplies.

BIRD FEEDERS

Bears are also attracted to the food in bird feeders. If you don't want bears on your property, you shouldn't have a bird feeder.  If you insist on having a bird feeder, it should be hung at least seven to eight feet from the ground, in a location that does not allow a climbing bear to get to it (generally at least four feet horizontally from a tree or post). Bears can also knock over fragile posts, so if you choose to mount a bird feeder on a post, make sure the post is extremely secure–and not something the bear can climb.

AGRICULTURAL AREAS

By keeping well mown “buffer zones” around beehives, crops, and livestock holding areas, farmers can reduce natural cover for bears.  Without cover, bears are typically discouraged from approaching a farm. When this is not feasible, electric fencing, even used temporarily, can be highly effective. The use of guarding animals to protect livestock from predators is gaining in popularity around the country and has proven highly effective. For protection of livestock against black bears in particular, guard dogs appear to be most effective.

HIKING AND CAMPING

Despite the fact that hikers in bear country spend their time in the bear’s habitat, sightings of black bears are rare. A bear typically knows a human is nearby before the hiker spots the bear, and the bear will usually leave the area. To ensure that you do not surprise a bear when hiking, it is a good idea to make noise periodically by whistling, talking, or otherwise making your presence known.  If you see a bear while hiking, make sure he or she knows you are there by waving your arms or making noise. If you come upon a bear by surprise walk slowly away.  Keep dogs on leashes and under controlsome dogs may act aggressively toward a bear, which would cause the bear to react in defense.  Many state wildlife agencies in bear territory have some form of bear response plan, including the deployment of agency staff members trained in aversive conditioning techniques. While many aversive conditioning techniques are easy to employ, it is illegal in most states for the general public to “harass” bears. The process should be left to your state wildlife agency so that the bear has the best chance possible of being trained to stay away from human habitat.

AVERSIVE CONDITIONING

Unwanted trespassing and crop damage by bears can be prevented through aversive conditioning. This method works by making an experience disagreeable enough to the bear that he or she is discouraged from repeating the undesirable behavior. Bear biologists and other trained agents use assertive behavior, chemical irritants, pyrotechnic scare devices, and rubber buckshot and bean bag rounds to teach a bear to stay away from human habitat. The typical aversive conditioning kit includes many items commonly available, such as high-volume water guns, air horns, emergency whistles, and automatic umbrellas.  Products are available that use motion detectors to sense a bear’s presence and shoot water or sound alarms to scare the bear away.

 


Q: Will hunting solve nuisance bear problems?

A: Hunting bears at random for recreation is not an effective means of solving human bear conflicts, and may actually exacerbate these conflicts. Hunters tend to take adult male bears, skewing the population in favor of younger sub-adult males who will then be able to expand their range and fill the vacancies left by the adults. These sub-adult males are more likely to cause conflicts with people by looking for alternative food sources in homes, campsites, and dumpsters, as they attempt to establish their own territories. Black bear hunting results in mortality for a random sample of bears, and does not target those individual bears actually responsible for damage. In fact, by killing a bear who is not causing problems, hunters may open the door for another bear– potentially one more likely to cause problems-to move into the vacated territory.


Q: What should I do if I encounter a bear?

A: If you see a bear before he or she knows you are there, back away slowly and quietly, leaving the bear an avenue of escape. Do not run away, as this may awaken the bear’s instinct to chase. If the bear has seen you, back away slowly while facing the bear. Again, leave the bear an escape route.  If the bear exhibits an interest in you, make yourself seem larger and a possible threat by standing up, opening your jacket, waving your arms, and banging pots and pans. Pick up any small children or dogs, and stand in groups to appear larger. In the unlikely event that a bear attacks you, do not play dead. Fight back using any blunt objects available, such as rocks, cameras, and binoculars.  After any encounter with a bear, even simply a bear sighting, report the encounter to your state wildlife agency. A complete record of bear encounters gives the agency the data needed to develop an effective bear response plan.

When camping in bear territory, do not cook food near your tent. If possible, cook downwind from your tent so that cooking odors do not collect in the tent. Store food and other items that give off odors in a car or bear-proof container outside your tent.  You can also suspend food between two trees using a rope; the food should be at least seven or eight feet above the ground and not accessible by climbing the tree.