As things get warmer, many of us are appreciating the long-awaited opportunities to get outside and explore the wild places Pennsylvania has to offer. However, we aren’t the only ones enjoying the sun and taking advantage of the bounties of Penn’s Woods . During the summer months, the wild things are out and about after a long winter, and many are breeding, eating, and making up for lost activity (and calories) winter months take away.
Black bears are one of the animals who share nature with us. It is important to know how to handle black bear encounters to make these moments enjoyable and safe for both humans and bears.
Knowledge empowers. Understanding black bear biology and behavior leads to better decision making should you come upon a bear. Some books to review? “Living with Bears Handbook” by Linda Masterson, and “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” by Stephen Herrero. The second book is not as scary as it sounds, and both authors discuss how we can be good “bear stewards” in our everyday lives and when adventuring out into the wild. A website called www.Bearwise.org is another great resource.
Humans are often incredibly loud when in the woods, and many bears will know we are coming long before we know they are there. Their excellent sense of smell and good sense of hearing mean they will most likely do their best to avoid you. Black bears do not want anything to do with people; they are shy animals, and will avoid trouble with humans whenever possible.
What do you do IF you encounter a black bear (the only bear species found in Pennsylvania)? First, assess the situation. Understand where you are, where the bear is, what the bear is doing, and identify possible escape routes for the bear and you. Are you extremely close to the bear, or fairly far away? What is the bear doing? Is it alone? These are all good questions to ask yourself to understand how you should react.
If the bear has not noticed you yet, quietly remove yourself from the area (i.e., back down the trail), and wait about 10-15 minutes before continuing your hike.
If the bear has noticed you, chances are that the bear does not want a physical encounter and will try to remove itself from the situation. Make sure the bear has an escape route–give the bear plenty of space, and back away from the bear while making yourself big (putting your hands up in the air). Talk to the bear to make sure he recognizes you as a human and knows you don’t want a problem.
If the bear happens to be brazen and tries to follow you, continue to make yourself big and start yelling at the bear while clapping your hands or using a loud item like an air horn (a very easily packable item).
In the extremely unlikely chance a physical encounter does occur between you and the bear, be prepared to fight back, keeping your neck, back, and head covered as much as possible (with your hands and pack if applicable). Black bear attacks rarely happen, and if they do it’s because the bear was cornered or food was involved.
When you corner a bear, become as non-threatening as possible and continue to protect the aforementioned parts of your body. The bear will leave once it feels you aren’t a threat, and it can get away. If the attack is food related, fight back, and give the bear all you’ve got. Inherently bears want an easy meal because the less calories they expend to get the food, the more they keep as stored energy.
If the bear is following you as you try to remove yourself from the scene and a physical encounter has not yet happened, it can be helpful to give the bear your pack as a distraction, and then report the encounter immediately to wildlife authorities. Do not use this trick every time a bear simply notices you on a hike, as you could unintentionally condition a bear to start pushing people to give them their packs.
Food is a huge motivator for black bears. This becomes important to remember when camping or staying overnight in black bear country. Food should never be easily accessible to bears and storing it appropriately can avoid the vast majority of problems people experience with black bears when camping. NEVER leave food out overnight (or really unattended at all), and clean up your campsite after meals and before going to bed. Keeping food inside a car or camper is fine, but NEVER store food in a tent as this is not an appropriate barrier.
If you have a tent or are backcountry camping, purchase a bear proof canister. Your packs/food related items or bear canisters should always be stored on “bear hangs” like the one shown to keep bears from being able to access them. Cooking and food storage areas should also be at least 200 feet away from your tent and downwind from your campsite.
NEVER EVER feed a bear intentionally. Ultimately, a fed bear is a dead bear. Black bears that associate people with food become incredibly dangerous and are often euthanized as this is not an easy behavior to break.
The long story made short is that black bear encounters for most people often end with absolutely no problems or harm done. It is up to us as visitors to their home to keep these encounters safe. Understand and study the wildlife you may encounter when out in the woods prior to your adventuring. If you respect wildlife, they will respect you.
For a sidebar containing more information about getting along with bears, check out the Summer 2021 issue of Penn’s Stewards newsletter.
– Emily Carrollo