A variation of this article first appeared on TheTrek.co
Hiking through Glacier National Park, my wife Michelle and I had already seen multiple bears that day. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.
Seconds later, from a distance I heard a shout of, “Keep walking!”
I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously!”
I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.
As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.
Black Bear or Grizzly?
For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the Continental United States. Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitteroot Mountains. Most U.S. bears are black bears (Ursus americanus). Any bear you see on the AT will be a black bear. While in theory, Grizzlies could be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century. So, it’s a safe bet that if you see a bear on the PCT, it will also be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.
Not all black bears are black
Black bears are spread throughout the U. S. with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.
If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see a black bear at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 bears living in California and an estimated 1,500 just in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When on these trails, you are in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings but, is it dangerous to share the woods with them?
Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no. From 2000 to 2019 there have been 9 deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48. Of those, 3 involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting those in the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years. By contrast, just last year there were 20 people killed by lightning (a low year) in the U.S.
In an average year, over 3,000 people drown.
Over 36,000 die annually in motor vehicle accidents
In 2017, 89 people were killed in the U.S. by bees, wasps and hornets.
Typically, between 30 and 50 people are killed each year by dogs. (Also known as “man’s best friend.)
Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (if someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)
To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the Founder and Board Chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people. “The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs. They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs”
Momma with cub waaay up a tree.
Grizzly bears react completely different to threats to their cubs and are the cause of this, and other misconceptions. The fact is that few people differentiate between the two species, but lumping them together results in unwarranted confusion and fear.
A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.
So, if you see a black bear on the trail, what should you do? Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it. We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack. Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”
All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.
Dealing with that “rare” bear
If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked, Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.
If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey, Fight back aggressively with any available object! Do not play dead!
Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray, (The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong.) He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressive around you or your food, pepper spray solves the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”
Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. In addition, no one needs to make an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage. Plus, the bear is not killed, but has learned a valuable lesson to fear humans. One note of caution, pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.
Despite the extremely low odds of attack, it is still very important to continue to protect your food from black bears, whether through use of a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or bear bagging everything that smells like it could be food. Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source. Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. Relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.
NPS photo Creating problem bears in the “old days.”
Some additional rumors to put to rest:
There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.
Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.
There have been no studies to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.
Bears will go anywhere they can find food. Don’t help them become problem bears.
Black Bears are neither the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be, nor are they cute teddy bears to attempt to feed or take a selfie with. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, both us and them can safely coexist.
Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.