How Dangerous are Black Bears?
Can we Co-exist with them?
by Dr. Lynn Rogers
In working with wild black bears for the past 29 years, I have generally become more and more comfortable with them as I learned their ‘language’ and how they think. During the last 10 years, I have earned the trust of certain bears and bear families to the extent that they seem to ignore me as I walk and sleep with them for up to 24 hours at a time.
My thinking has evolved in much the way that other people have changed their attitudes towards gorillas. Both species have blustery, bluff charges that seldom end in contact but have helped earn them a reputation for being ferocious. Dian Fossey showed us that gorillas are mostly gentle, and we are learning the same thing about black bears. I now interpret aggressive displays by black bears in terms of their fear rather than mine. I try not to scare them and their fear turns into trust. Their most common aggressive displays are merely rituals that they perform when they are nervous.
This trust on my part took years of erasing the thoughts I grew up with. The outdoor magazines I read usually portrayed bears as dangerous and unpredictable. Official brochures that I thought were authoritative warned about the dangers of bears. Bears that were mounted in the finest museums showed unnatural snarls. When I began my studies, I had all the common misconceptions that come with a lifetime of misinformation.
Black bears have killed nearly three dozen people across North America this century, but this no longer worries me. My chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees or lightening are vastly greater. My chances are 90,000 times greater of being murdered. One of the safest places a person can be is in the woods with bears.
In working closely with wild bears, we have been slapped occasionally, but black bears are not prone to bite. No black bear has ever come after me and bitten me. The slaps were not that damaging – usually ripped clothing and welts on the skin. This is nothing close to the folklore which states that a bear can disembowel a steer with a single swipe. The claws of black bears are strong for climbing trees but not sharp for holding prey.
A big revelation to me was how reluctant mothers are to defend their cubs against people on the ground. Defense of cubs is primarily a grizzly bear trait that people have generalized to black bears. We routinely capture black bear cubs in the presence of mothers and have never been attacked.
Up until the last 10,000 years, black bears survived by being continually ready to run from saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and short-faced bears. Black bears existed by staying out of open areas and near trees. The timid ones passed on their genes, creating the black bear of today. This inherent timidness continues to serve black bears well in the face of modern predators such as grizzly bears, timber wolves and people. When black bears are startled they run away, often for a tree.
Despite all their timidness on the ground, black bears seem to feel more courageous in trees. After all, none of the huge predators that they evolved with could climb. Bears sometimes kill each other by throwing their opponents out of trees. The bear below has the advantage because the bear above cannot easily hang on and face downward to fight back. The bear below seems confident of the advantages and mothers have even come up trees after people who thought climbing was prudent. On the other hand, bears that are above an opponent seem to feel at a disadvantage. The consequences of this in capturing bears in trees for research was that no matter how large the bear – we always had to pursue them all the way to the tops of the trees. They just wanted to get away.
If mother black bears with cubs are no problem, what’s the story behind the killings and injuries we’ve heard about? I put them in two categories – offensive attacks, which are very rare, and defensive actions, which are easily avoided.
Offensive attacks include all of the killings. These are generally unprovoked predatory attacks. Most victims were eaten. These attacks have almost always been in remote areas where the bears had little or no previous contact with people. Bears that raid campgrounds or garbage cans are almost never involved. The rarity of the killings goes along with the non-confrontational, timid disposition that’s been bred into black bears. But why approximately one black bear in 600,000 becomes a killer is a mystery. None of the killers had rabies. Some had physical problems, but that’s common. Some were skinny, but in some years whole populations are hungry and starving with no attacks. There is no consistent explanation. Fortunately, there are fewer dangerous bears than there are dangerous people.
What can you do in the rare case of being attacked by a black bear? Fight back. Predators are not angry and are cautious to avoid injury. Play dead only in the even rarer case of being attacked by an angry mother.
Are menstruating women more likely to be attacked? None of the people killed by black bears were menstruating, and I’ve never heard of a menstruating woman being attacked by a black bear. In fact, it is now considered coincidence that the two women who were killed by grizzlies in Glacier National Park in 1957 were menstruating at the time.
Will black bears attack because they sense a person is afraid? No. Most people who encounter bears close up are afraid, and attacks are rare anyway. The idea that bears will attack if they think we’re vulnerable is an idea conjured up out of our own fear. Black bears aren’t territorial towards people and usually behave like they’re worried they’ll be attacked.
Black bears look ominous when they approach. They look like their hackles are up but this is only because their underfur makes all of their fur stand up. Often they have a ridge of guard hairs standing up on the back of their neck and spine. This is the last of their old fur to be shed, so it is simply longer that the rest of their fur. When half-tame bears approach out of simple curiosity, they often walk slowly with their eyes glued on the person, which looks disconcertingly like they are stalking – but it’s just the way they look.
What are defensive actions? These are the situations when bears treat aggressive people in the way that they would treat other bears who had bad manners. These include the times when we were swatted while capturing or crowding bears during research. Incidents in national parks usually involve crowding or petting. Wild bears don’t understand petting because they are solitary animals that don’t do mutual grooming. Typical incidents involve people offering food to hungry half-tame bears to lure them closer than the bears feel comfortable. When the bear opens its mouth to take the food, a fearful person often involuntarily jerks the food back. If the bear is hungry enough, he might make a quick move to get it and bite the hand too, causing a bruise. Another scenario involves half-tame bears feeding from the hand calmly until the food is gone then suddenly feeling crowded without the distraction of the food. Too fearful to turn their backs and leave, they slap defensively, giving themselves an instant afterward to turn and run.
It’s easy to avoid defensive actions – just don’t entice hungry, half-tame bears any closer than the bears feel comfortable.
Bears that come into campgrounds are usually hungry and half-tame but I have never had any problem simply chasing them away. No matter how bold they seemed, they still recognized aggressive behavior and ran away when someone yelled and ran towards them. If people are hesitant to chase bears, throwing sticks in the brush to make them think that another bear might be coming helps to unnerve them. Hitting them with rocks is effective and is better than letting them get into bad campground habits that could get them shot. I have never seen a black bear that would hesitate to retreat when people came running and yelling at it. A study in Yosemite National Park showed the same thing that we learned – the more aggressive a person is to campground bears, the more timid they become.
Although bears have injured people in national parks and campgrounds where food is scarce, I’ve never heard of an injury at a garbage dump. When there is so much food around it’s hard to tempt them with food. More importantly, only those bears that feel comfortable will come close. Most dumps are closed to the public now, but for decades, people and bears mingled daily at hundreds of dumps with hardly a problem.
As people learn more about black bears, old fears are being replaced with understanding. Attitudes are improving. Fewer people are so fearful that they shoot bears for simply showing their faces. Bounties on bears and other predators have become less common. However, people are moving into bear country in unprecedented numbers – buying cabins for recreation or as primary residences, conducting business via computers, modems and fax machines. The attitude of the increasing rural populations will play a large part in future black bear numbers.
Can we co-exist with black bears? The residents of Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania suggest we can. Seven thousand residents share their seven square mile town with over 20 black bears. That’s three bears per square mile, a higher density than is found in any national park. The bears are being studied by biologist Dr. Gary Alt, who finds bears hibernating under people’s porches and in their back yards, often without the residents’ knowledge. In the summer, people have thousands of ‘encounters’ – that is, they see bears. But in this town it’s not considered a problem – they enjoy seeing the bears.