November 25, 2017
By Lynn Burkhead
Mention the word bear in a hunting or fishing camp and it seems like everyone has a story to tell.
Especially when the tale centers around a brown bear or a grizzly bear, a couple of critters that seem to almost naturally set off the internal alarm bells put into the recesses of our DNA by the Creator Himself.
Take Outdoor Channel and Sportsman Channel television show host Tom Miranda for example. He once heard those alarms sound off as he came to full draw on a close-range Alaskan brown bear while taking another step towards his bowhunting "Super Slam" quest (the harvesting with a bow of all 29 recognized big game species in North America).
"When you hear the brown bear walking through the water, you wonder why in the heck that you want to do this," said Miranda. "You (wanted) to be in this spot for so many days and even years as you're dreaming, planning your trip, practicing with your bow and flying all of those miles.
"Then you're there and you're wondering 'Holy cow, why did I want to do this?' and you think you're nuts."
While I've personally never been terribly close to a brown bear or a grizzly on any of my western hunting trips, trout fishing adventures in British Columbia or salmon fly fishing adventures in Alaska, I have had several encounters with their smaller cousins, the black bear.
Looking back, my earliest recollection of seeing a bear of any kind out in the open was a sizable black bear observed while on a family vacation in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Funny thing is, even as a kid, I don't remember being scared.
Maybe it was the fact that I was a youngster, perhaps it was the cartoonish nature of the lumbering black bear or perhaps it was the familiarity of a bear species dubbed with the phrase "Teddy Bear" following a 1902 black bear encounter President Teddy Roosevelt had on a Mississippi hunting trip.
The sight of brown bears and grizzly bears sets off the internal alarm bells in most people's DNA. But what about black bears, are they dangerous? (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service photo by Steve Hillebrand)
As I have grown older and wandered more and more around the various woods and waters of North America, my sightings of bears – black bears, that is – has continued to increase. There have been a few encounters here and there while hunting, fishing and hiking in states like Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
In each encounter, there haven't been many if any alarm bells sounding off when I've seen such creatures, at times only a handful of yards away from my position.
But occasionally, as I tell one of my own bear stories around a campfire, in the back of my mind I can't help but wonder if I should be more concerned.
If I should ask the following question: Are black bears dangerous?
And the answer is, yes, at times, they can be.
In fact, a quick Google search for fatal black bear attacks found at least seven such attacks in North America since 2010. Those various attacks took place from early May through mid-September in Alaska, Alberta, Arizona, British Columbia (2), New Jersey and Ohio.
In other words, such deadly encounters do occasionally take place in the various portions of black bear country during the warmer spring, summer and autumn months.
Which is something everyone from a fly fisherman stalking springtime trout with a box full of streamer patterns to a turkey hunter prowling the springtime woods and mountains for a longbeard should keep in mind.
Such thoughts bring to mind a conversation I once had with retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer Larry Hlavaty.
In the conversation, Hlavaty and I discussed a black bear attack on an Idaho bowhunter after the then 29-year-old hunter was surprised by a traveling black bear sow and her cubs as the hunter took part in an early September elk hunt.
Only the quick thinking of the hunter's 50-year-old father – who came running at his son's screams and performed some deadly accurate archery shooting as he arrowed the attacking black bear in the spine – kept the incident from becoming one where the son's moderate injuries turned into deadly ones.
Hlavaty noted to me during our interview while black bear attacks are indeed rare, when they do occur, such encounters can quickly become dangerous and then some.
In fact, the Idaho officer mentioned black bear attacks can often prove to be even more dangerous than those of grizzly bears, another bruin that wanders through Idaho mountains and river valleys.
When moving through bear country – even if only black bears are present – there are several safety tips and precautions that hunters, anglers, hikers and campers should put into practice. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service photo by Steve Hillebrand)
"A black bear, number one, can pursue you up a tree," Hlavaty explained. "A person could normally get away from a grizzly by going up a tree. But a black bear can go up a tree after you."
If you doubt that, consider an Instagram photo I saw of a northern hunter taking to the spring bear woods where he had a treestand set up over a bait site.
Why didn't the archer climb into his stand that particular evening? Because there was a sizable black bear actually perched in that stand some 20 feet above the ground, that's why.
And this particular bowhunter has the social media photo to prove it.
Another reason black bear attacks can prove to be so dangerous is that a hunter, fisherman or hiker can't always bluff his way out of an attack.
"In some grizzly attacks, the victim has played dead, and sometimes, the grizzly will make a couple of swats and leave them alone," said Hlavaty. "That's happened."
A fly fisherman I once met in an Alaskan camp had his own tale and a couple of scars to prove it. Hiking in the 49th state as he trained for a mountain climbing ascent of 20,310-foot Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley, North America's highest mountain peak), he surprised a grizzly bear on a trail and was quickly attacked.
During the attack as the bear tore through the man's backpack and bulkier outer clothing, he initially resisted as the bear mauled him. At some point, however, he remembered this tactic and feigned being dead.
When he did, the bear eventually broke off the attack on the man and ultimately moved away.
But black bear attacks?
"(A) black bear just keeps on attacking once they start," said Hlavaty.
So how can an outdoor enthusiast stay safe while moving about in black bear country?
While perhaps not an exhaustive list, start by considering these tips I gleaned from the Utah Department of Natural Resource website (http://wildlife.utah.gov/learn-more/bear-safety.html) concerning black bear safety:
First, the Utah DNR says to maintain a bear-safe campsite. This can be accomplished by storing food, drinks and scented items securely in a vehicle, a bear-safe container or a tree (never in a tent).
Next, the Utah DNR says to dispose of trash in bear-proof dumpsters if available; wipe down picnic tables; and burn food off of stoves and grills.
Also pitch tents away from trails in the backcountry and always sleep inside of the tent.
Next, the Utah DNR says to never approach a bear or attempt to try and feed one. And finally, report bear sightings to the campground host or local wildlife authorities.
What should outdoorsmen do as they move through the woods? The Utah DNR offers the following:
- Stay alert at dawn and dusk when bears are more active.
- Go with a group, if possible, and make noise as you travel through dense cover.
- Stay away from animal carcasses.
- Store food, trash and scented items (such as sunscreen) in airtight plastic bags.
- And keep kids in the center of your group.
What should an outdoor enthusiast do if they encounter a bear and/or are attacked?
For that, I'll quote directly from the Utah DNR website once again:
If you encounter a black bear:
- Stand your ground: Never back up, lie down or play dead. Stay calm and give the bear a chance to leave. Prepare to use your bear spray or another deterrent.
- Don't run away or climb a tree: Black bears are excellent climbers and can run up to 35 miles per hour; you cannot out climb or outrun them.
- Know bear behaviour: If a bear stands up, grunts, moans or makes other sounds, it's not being aggressive. These are the ways a bear gets a better look or smell and expresses its interest.
If a black bear attacks:
- Use bear spray: Then leave the area. Studies have shown bear spray to be 92 percent successful in deterring bear attacks.
- Shoot to kill: If you use a firearm, never fire a warning shot; aim for the center of the bear and keep firing until it is dead. Notify the Division of Wildlife Resources immediately.
- Always fight back: And never give up! People have successfully defended themselves with almost anything: rocks, sticks, backpacks, water bottles and even their hands and feet.
Hopefully, by utilizing such safety tips and treading carefully in black bear country, there won't be any additional serious encounters taking place between an outdoorsman and a black bear.
Encounters that ultimately fail to become a dangerous or a deadly statistic in a Google search and instead become nothing more than entertaining fodder for a late night campfire story.