Black Bears in the Camp! How to Deal With the Fear and Reality

by PennPaddler

Black Bears

Campground Black Bears

We run away from them, we lay awake in our tents listening for them, but why are we so afraid of the black bear? The answer to that question might be wrapped within our fear of the unknown; the unknown being our own lack of education. People warn us about bears in the woods, we hear stories about deadly bear encounters ( Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard being one of the most frightening bear attacks) and some people become so petrified over the thought of their own gory demise by an angry black bear that they won’t step foot in the woods. But if people knew the reality of black bear attacks they would realize that the chances of a life threatening black bear encounter while camping are very low here in the United States and in Canada. And I should point out that this article was published on 5/3/2010 and only applies to the less aggressive black bears and not the highly aggressive grizzly and brown bears. 

So how dangerous are black bears?

Did you know that most black bear attacks are a defensive reaction to a person who is too close to the bear, and with the black bears shy personality, getting too close is usually an easy situation to avoid because it’s actually very difficult to corner a black bear in its own environment? Injuries from these defensive black bear reactions are usually minor. 

Roaming Black Bear

North American Black Bear

But then there are the very rare offensive black bear attacks that account for most of the human fatalities by black bear. These unprovoked attacks are usually predatory in nature and occur in remote areas where bears have very little contact with humans. Black bears that habitat near campgrounds, backyards, and other areas with human activity almost never attack people. An interesting statistic from the North American Bear Center says that the 750,000 black bears in North America kill less than one person per year on the average. According to that statistic you have more to fear from people. 

Here are a few more interesting black bear facts from the North American Bear Center that might surprise you. 

  • There are only 12 cases of black bears killing humans in the contiguous United States in the last century.
  • Forty-five other black bear killings have been reported in Canada and Alaska during the same period.
  • With more than 750,000 black bears in North America, less than one of those bears will become a human killer.
  • Black bears will almost always avoid confrontations with people, including black bears with cubs.

After reading those facts black bears don’t seem so threatening, and there are certainly greater threats in nature that most of us don’t even give a thought. 

  • There have been 12 fatal alligator attacks in Florida in the past decade. Compare that to the 12 fatal attacks in
    Rattlesnake

    Rattlesnake

    the United States by black bear in the past century.
  • Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and about five of those die. How often do you walk clumsily through the woods without any thought to snakes?
  • People are more than 100 times more likely to be killed by bees in the United States than by a black bear.
  • A person is one 150 times more likely to be killed by tornado than by a black bear in the United States.
  • A person is 375 times more likely to die by lightning than to be killed by a black bear.

It’s important to understand the bears body movements.

One key to getting over the fear of black bears is to understand what the bears movements are telling you. For example, black bears have body movements that may look like they are stalking or being aggressive, but they are really only reacting to their own nervousness or curiosity, and unfortunately humans often interpret those body movements as aggressive behavior. 

Blustery Black Bear Photo Courtesy of North American Bear Center

Blustery Black Bear

Blustery Bears – bluster is a black bear movement that appears to be threatening, but it’s an indication that a bear is nervous or afraid. Unfortunately many bears in this movement are shot unnecessarily by people who think blustery bears are attacking. People see bluster from mother bears with cubs, or from bears feeding in areas of human activity, such as campgrounds, hiking trails, or in a backyard. A common form of bluster is jaw popping or clacking teeth. Another is the pounce and blow. See a great example of bear bluster in the video at the top right. 

So what should you do if you encounter a black bear in the woods?

According to the North American Bear Center, you should just enjoy the moment. You can make yourself inconspicuous to watch them longer, and when you want the bear to go away just step out, wave, and shout at the bear. The North American Bear Center says, “no matter how bold and confident bears seemed, they still recognized aggressive behavior and ran away when someone yelled and ran toward them. Besides pepper spray, throwing stones is also effective, especially if you yell and act aggressive at the same time. If a person doesn’t want a black bear to come closer, act aggressively. Black bears that come into campgrounds are looking for food, not people, and can easily be chased away in most cases.” 

black bear and cubs

Black Bear and Cubs

What if  I get between a black bear and her cubs?

Black bear researcher Dave Garshelis of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says, “Generally with black bears, there’s no indication that females with cubs are more dangerous than a single bear. That comes from grizzly bears,” Garshelis said. “Black bears generally aren’t aggressive. But when any animal feels cornered, they’ll sometimes act. Not very often, but it can happen.”  Garshelis also says that black bears will almost always avoid confrontations with people. Minnesota has more than 20,000 black bears. 

Here are a few basic rules for black bear encounters:

  • Don’t feed bears—feeding rewards them for approaching people, which can lead to dangerous encounters.
  • If you see a bear, remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to alter its behavior (it stops feeding, changes travel direction, watches you, etc.), you are too close.
  • Getting too close to a bear may provoke aggressive behavior, such as running toward you, making loud noise or swatting the ground (bluster). Slowly back away from the bear, but do not run.
  • If a black bear persistently follows or approaches you without vocalizing or paw swatting, change your direction. If the bear continues to follow, stand your ground and attempt to intimidate the bear by stomping your feet or throwing rocks or sticks. Do not run, and do not turn away from the bear.

Question – Is bear pepper spray an effective bear deterrent? Yes it is and you can read more about it here. And you can buy bear pepper spray here. 

So there you have it, a few facts about the North American Black Bear. For more information about the black bear visit the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota and consider joining one of their educational programs. 

Photos Sources: 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/morristownnps/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/leeco/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/searchnetmedia/ / CC BY 2.0

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff May 10, 2010 at 9:45 pm

only one close bear encounter in years of camping. Apostle Islands Manitou Island in Jene 2008. I could not scare the bear out of camp. Shouting, signal whistling, rock throwing. When I took two chunks of firewood and started drumming the bear box, he actually strolled closer and had a seat. Just my luck a “deadhead” bear. I loaded the yak and moved on. They closed that campsite for the rest of the season

Arness May 11, 2010 at 10:23 am

Even though the video shows otherwise, I can’t deal with the bears and I will leave the campsite on the first sign of a bear.

Roy Mead May 12, 2010 at 11:18 am

Bears dont bother me and never did. But snakes are a different story and I won’t stick around long with a snake of any kind.

John Knouse August 5, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I enjoyed the black bear article; very objective. I have had them walk by my campsites, and they’ve never bothered me. Of course, I have used proper bear-bag precautions. One thing the article didn’t say, however, is that whatever it said about black bears DOES NOT APPLY to grizzly bears or brown bears (which are in Alaska and western Canada). These bears can be highly aggressive AND carnivorous. VERY different from black bears.

PennPaddler August 9, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Hi John,
Thanks for the comment. I tried to make a clear distinction that this article only applies to black bears. But maybe you are right and from the readers point of view it’s not clear and I should clarify that this article applies to black bears only, and not grizzly or brown bears.

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