Black Bears in the Wild -- Are You Black Bear Aware?
Be Bear Aware
Bear aware? What's that?
Adventures in the wild are quite wonderful, whether you enjoy hiking or camping or even just taking a day trip into an environment where you are likely to encounter wild life. It is a great pleasure to experience nature and to feel our connection to the animals and plants in our world, but we have a responsibility when in nature to protect and respect both the life around us and to protect ourselves and companions, too, by making sensible choices.
To be "bear aware" is a catch word that means basically to be sensible and informed in our ventures into places where encounters with bears are possible.
Bears are one of the more impressive larger animals in a complete ecosystem. The American black bear's range is quite diverse, and this bear can be found in most parts of Canada as well in the more forested and mountainous areas of the United States and into Mexico. They can even be found in some southern US pockets in Florida and Louisiana, as well.
The American black bear is omnivorous; depending on the time of year, they mostly eat vegetation, preferring new grasses and buds in the spring, berries and fruits in the summer and early fall, and masts, or nuts and seeds from trees, in the autumn. They will also eat insects and small or young mammals as well as birds' eggs. Fish, especially salmon, are favorites in the bear's dietary preference, and bears can often be seen congregating at salmon spawning grounds.
Although black bears tend to avoid contact with humans, this tendency will be contravened when easy meals are at stake. People who actively feed bears or who are irresponsible in disposing of food waste are often responsible for encouraging the animals to associate humans with a food source and so to risk unwelcome encounters between black bears and people.
Photo credit: mvipond at stock.xchng.
Better to be safe than sorry when hiking in bear country.
Black Bear Encounters at Home: Be Bear Aware
Depending on where you live, an encounter with a black bear can either be rather common or extremely rare.
We live on a piece of land within a nature conservancy, yet black bears only come into our yard at very predictable times during the year -- in the early spring and when the apples are ripe on the trees. Across the lake in the town, people have been struggling with black bears ever since the landfill closed down and the town became more conscientious about dealing with waste. Black bears who had grown accustomed to finding free eats at the dump moved into town where they raid garbage cans. They, in effect, become the type of nuisance other communities experience with raccoons.
But, of course, black bears are a lot bigger and stronger than raccoons. And though in the wild they are actually rather shy of human contact, when it comes to searching for food, black bears are like everyone else -- greedy. The best thing to do is to avoid giving black bears easy access to free food, in other words, to become more responsible about how we deal with our garbage. Black bears cannot be blamed for following the scent of our barbecues and smelly garbage cans. Or for showing up exactly when the fruit is ripe on the trees. (They don't know that it was you who planted that apple tree a few years back!)
So those in the know encourage people to be "bear aware." What this means is to think about the black bears and what might attract them to come to where they are unwelcome. The first advice is to keep garbage protected where the black bear cannot reach it. Many towns with bear problems have installed metal public refuse containers that have bear-proof lids. Home garbage containers should also be kept where bears cannot access them.
Fruit should be picked promptly and completely so that bears are not encouraged to snack there. In our town (across the lake), volunteers come to pick fruit from any tree where the homeowners find the fruit is more than they can handle. That excess fruit is then boxed and sold at the local gas station/convenience store or distributed to local families as part of the local food security initiative.
Finally, barbecuing should be done responsibly. Grills need to be cleaned after food is cooked and all food and leftovers put safely away. Black bears like a good cook out as much as the next guy!
Bear Encounters Away from Home
Always Be Bear Aware
One of the anxieties that can cross your mind when planning a hike in the mountains or a camping trip is what to do if you should meet a bear. The thing to keep in mind is that generally, black bears are shy creatures. They are probably just as nervous about meeting you as you are about meeting them.
Similar rules apply to the hiking trail and campsite as those mentioned about avoiding confrontations at home. The single most important precaution regards food. Be wary around berry patches and other places where bears are looking for a meal. Bears are rather large and so need to eat a lot to keep up their strength and to put on the fat before their long winter hibernation, so don't compete with them for their food sources in the wild. When you are camping, hang your food in the trees and keep all food out of your tent. Don't leave leftovers or dirty dishes around your campsite.
When you are walking or hiking in the woods, make enough noise that a bear will hear you coming. Some people wear a bell attached to their pack. This alerts the bear who is wary of meeting you, too.
Whenever you see a bear, take a quick look around to be sure there are no cubs nearby. Never get between the mother and her cubs. In the wild, some male bears will even attack and eat young cubs, so mother bears are very cautious about their babies.
It is a good idea to carry bear spray with you when you are venturing off into the woods, especially in areas where bears are known to inhabit. You may never need to use bear spray, but if you should be in a situation where a bear feels threatened and becomes aggressive, bear spray has been shown to be an effective deterrent. In fact, in all the cases on record where people and bears have been at odds and bear spray has been used properly, a bear expert has informed me, no bear has died as a result and no human person has died. On the other hand, when the person has carried a gun, thousands of bears have been killed and many, many people have been killed or wounded, as well, because of misfiring or because the wounded bear has become angry and attacked the gun holder with a vengeance. So even if a gun makes you feel safer, you are actually safer with the bear spray as your last resort weapon.
Another tip bear experts offer is to refrain from taking your dog on a hike where you are likely to encounter a bear. Dogs and bears are natural enemies. Your dog is likely to bark and try to chase the bear. When the bear turns on the dog, the dog is likely to turn to you, his trusted owner, to keep safe, leading the bear directly to you. Not much protection, eh?
Bear Protection for Your Hike - Be Prudent, not Paranoid!
Carrying bear spray with you while hiking in the mountains will ease your anxieties and allow you to enjoy your expedition. Some people bring along a bell or noisemaker, as well, but simply having a companion to talk to can be enough to make your presence known. Hiking is all about the experience an you'll want that experience to be a positive one.