Not only does the early summer snow melting from forest service campgrounds lure RVers to their favorite forest camp, it also brings bears out of hibernation from the long winter sleep–and they are hungry! Mama bears with cubs have two or three mouths to feed, and early in the season some areas have yet to produce the bears’ favorite foods. This has drawn the bears down from the higher elevations to where food may be more abundant.
Unfortunately, it has also drawn bears into the same terrain as campers, hikers, mountain bikers, and RVers. Bears will also break into homes, car trunks, and ice chests searching for food. And though bears seem to have less fear of humans, it may be that we are sharing more and more territory each year.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife reported receiving more than 1,500 bear complaints in 2007, and a bear biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game reports responding to ten bear calls per day just along Lake Tahoe’s west shore.
Other reports include a man having his face slashed when he tried to chase a bear away that was tearing apart his ice chest in a campground in the Eldorado National Forest west of Lake Tahoe, three mountain bikers and a dog being attacked by a grizzly bear on a trail in Alaska, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) stated that bear reports of all kinds for the first six months of 2010 to be 1,261–compared to the early 1990s when they only took 200 reports for the entire year.
Though black bear sightings are common in typical bear areas, they do not normally attack humans. However, if you do encounter a bear, it would be advisable to know what to do and what not to do. The following is the current advice from the NJ DEP.
* Do not feed or approach the bear.
* Remain calm and make the bear aware of your presence by speaking in a calm, assertive voice.
* Make sure the bear has an escape route.
* Yell, bang pots and pans or use an air horn to scare away the bear. Make yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with your arms raised above your head.
* The bear may swat the ground and utter a series of huffs, or make popping sounds by snapping its jaws. These are warning signs that you are too close. Slowly back away and avoid direct eye contact. Do not run.
* If a bear stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it may be trying to get a better view or detect scents in the air. It is usually not a threatening behavior.
* Black bears will sometimes bluff charge when cornered or threatened or when attempting to steal food. Stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact and then slowly back away. Do not run.
* If the bear will not leave, head for nearby shelter. Remember that black bear attacks are extremely rare. If a black bear does attack, fight back.
Remember that bears are attracted to the smell of food, and anything that is aromatic that could be food, like toothpaste. Leave no food out on your picnic table or in an ice chest. And pick up some bear spray–and keep it handy– just in case. Do not hike alone and make enough noise so any bears will hear you coming and stay away from you. Check with the visitor center or rangers where you are camping to find out current bear sightings and any areas to avoid.
Personally . . . I feel that, though I have never been attacked, that trying to remember all those rules when confronted by a black bear and your adrenaline starts to pump, may not be practical. So consider the following excerpt from an article on the North American Bear Center website from someone that has been dealing with wild bears for more than 40 years:
“Their most common aggressive displays are merely rituals they perform when they are nervous. When I see any bluster, I feel safe. It means the bear wants to talk about the problem it has with me. I have never had one come after me and hurt me. The only times I have been bitten is when I initiated the contact.
“Black bears have killed 61 people across North America since 1900. This no longer worries me. My chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightning are vastly greater. My chances of being murdered are 60,000 times greater. One of the safest places a person can be is in the woods.” (my emphasis)
This is the Bear Center’s concise, practical advice:
What if I see a black bear?
The standard answer nationwide is, “Speak calmly and back away slowly.” This is good advice. It identifies you as a person, shows that you are non-threatening, and gives the bear space.
Is following this advice necessary to avoid an attack? No.
Those are polite actions that respect a black bear’s comfort zone and help ease its anxiety. It is the gentle way to separate. More aggressive action would be more likely to increase a black bear’s anxiety and send it running.
Which action is safest? If a black bear is more than a few yards away, it hardly matters. Attacks are extremely rare despite what people do. Fearful, unnecessary advice about what to do, or not do, when a person sees a bear is often given by well meaning people.