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What do You do if You Encounter a Black Bear?

Updated on August 1, 2012
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One more ‘thing’ to check off my list: last night I came into close proximity with a black bear. Yes, I was in bear country and I knew these encounters were definite possibilities here.

But until you are a stone’s throw away from this massive animal, you can’t fully appreciate the adrenaline rush that overcomes your body. And the paralysis that sets in trying to remember what to do next. I feel like I was stuck in the classic flight or fight situation. Hence the reason for the following piece of advice so you are better prepared than I was.

Do You Play Dead or Do You Make Noise?

I knew as much as that the recommendations had changed from playing dead to making a lot of noise. And the obvious necessity to stay calm. But I must admit that in that sudden moment of panic, I could not remember a thing. At least not as quickly as I would have liked.

We had come home from an outdoor movie and it was dark outside. We were in a populated area, which gave us a false sense of safety. The garage door was open and the light from inside lit up part of the driveway. One of my kids was still in the car as we unloaded blankets and chairs, when my husband called ‘quietly’ over to me to get in the house. I did not respond because I still had unloading to do, but when he ordered me in the house for a second time, I figured it was time to look up. And what I saw was a black bear, climbing down a hill very slowly and gracefully, nose to the ground. He was beautiful to look at, but with my son still in the car, panic set in.

Why Learning to Co-Live With Bears is Necessary

Our sighting was not unusual. The problem is that black bears are very common in this area and have become habituated to human food and garbage. Statistically even in bear country the chances of being injured are extremely low, but crossing paths with a bear is more likely because they no longer have a strong fear of us. Did you know that feeding bears is actually illegal and greatly increases the potential for property damage and the death of a bear?

You can help ensure the well-being of bears and their habitat by following some simple guidelines. Learning to co-live with bears is fundamental to the quality of life to be enjoyed by visitors and residents in bear country. After all, bears cannot and will not be relocated. And they were here before us, which reminds me a lot of my kids when they argue over a toy and claim possession because they had it first.

Practical Tips on Co-Living with Bears

First to the practical advice for avoiding contact with black bears. Never feed bears or leave food out for pets or wild creatures to lure them up close to for that perfect picture. Animals are instinctual and will attempt to get another free meal later. This is the start of an ongoing problem, and worse, you are responsible for creating it.

Always dispose of your trash in metal (not wood) bear proof containers, if possible. And be sure that the latch engages after closing the door. If bear proof containers are not available, it is best to store your garbage in the garage until trash day. And remember to put your trash out in the morning, not the night before. Spraying pinesol inside every bag of garbage before putting it out might also deter bears from coming too close. Lastly, never leave garbage or food in your vehicles, or better yet, park inside the garage rather than the driveway.

Always clean and store the barbecue in a secured structure after each use. Know that sweeteners in poisons sold to protect against bears actually attract bears just like candy. Bird and hummingbird feeders attract bears day or night, too. So just skip them altogether in bear country.

What Should You do if You Encounter a Bear?

Even if you’ve followed all of the above advice, it is inevitable that a bear may cross your path. Hoping you are better prepared than I felt, let’s review both of the possible scenarios.

If you encounter a bear in your yard: although you might be tempted, never run from him as this may stimulate his instinct to chase. And we all know how that game would end. Instead, let the bear know this is literally your territory and that he does not belong here. Do not show fear or act submissive. Easier said than done, I know. Try yelling at him, bang pots and pans, even throw rocks if you have to. Your goal is to make him think that you are a bigger bear than he is!

If you encounter a bear in the woods: know that this is his territory but that in all likelihood, he is happy to share. Again, try your very best not to run. To the contrary, let him know you are there. Try to make eye contact without staring. Definitely pick up small children who are prone to running and keep them as calm as possible. Learn from the experience and move on with respect for wildlife yet self-confidence that you can handle the situation safely.

So remember:

  • Do not run
  • Always give the bear plenty of room
  • If the bear is unaware of you, back away quietly and quickly
  • If the bear is aware of you, back away slowly, speak calmly and firmly, and wave your arms slowly

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