What should you do if you see a bear?

Update February 20, 2010 – 6:26 PM CST

What should you do if you see a black bear?  The standard answer nationwide is, “Speak calmly and back away slowly.”  This identifies you as a person, shows you to be non-threatening, and gives the bear space.  Not bad advice.

But do you have to follow that advice 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.  Standing quietly without speaking might give you more opportunity to observe what the bear is doing.  More aggressive action would likely send the bear running like many of us saw on Animal Planet’s ‘Bear Whisperer’ a couple nights ago.

Is one action safer than another?  If a black bear is more than a few yards away, it seldom matters what you do.  Attacks are rare no matter what.

One might say, “What? I’ve heard lots of advice about what a person must do.”  Yes, well-meaning advice-givers have said a lot of things.  Most have had no close-up experience with wild, non-tranquilized bears, and that includes most bear biologists.  A problem with most advice is that it really makes no difference and carries the hidden, scary message that if you don’t do it, you will be in deep trouble, maybe killed.

Much of the usual advice is based on assumptions that bears are quick to anger—like they are portrayed on covers of hunting magazines—and that they would love to attack us if they only dared.  We can attest, after 43 years of working with wild bears, that those assumptions are wrong.

Realizing how little science and how little first-hand experience is behind the well-meaning advice, we have tested as much of it as possible.  We have not found a way to reliably elicit an attack.  In fact, in 43 years, we've never been attacked, even when holding screaming cubs in our hands with mother bears present.  We've seen lots of bluff charges, but no attacks.  The closest we’ve come to eliciting attacks is when we tackled bears, which we quit doing decades ago.  Of course, the bears bit and clawed their way free, but then they ran instead of attacking.  

We’ve heard all the advice and collected a file of it.  We’ll discuss a little more of it over the next couple days.

Thank you again for your repeated contributions and purchases.  As you know, none of the profit is used for overhead or administrative costs.  It goes to reduce our debt to free up money for education.

Final notes:

After looking at Linda Gibson’s video from the wee hours this morning, we have some doubt about the cub being a girl.  We don’t know if the spot we saw in almost the right place was debris or a penis.  We wonder why we couldn’t see that in the February 3 video.  We’ll be looking for clues, including where Lily licks the cub when it urinates.  This will make naming the cub more difficult.  We need your observational skills to help up us solve this mystery!

Also, Lily has been eating a lot of snow lately.  We didn’t see much of that earlier.  Does this happen more toward the end of hibernation?  Is the cub making Lily thirsty by demanding more milk as it grows?  As Lily becomes leaner, does she have to draw on non-fat reserves which require more water to flush out waste products?  Does increased lactation draw more on non-fat reserve to make the non-fat components of the milk?  We’ll see if there’s a pattern of snow consumption as time goes on.

It was interesting to see Lily’s big dilated pupil as she ate snow in front of the camera about 6:10 PM CST after the sun went down.

—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center.