What if you run from a bear?

What if you run from a bear?

Update February 23, 2010 – 7:21 PM CST

There is so much advice out there about what to do if you see a black bear.  At the top of many lists is ‘Never run.  It could trigger a predatory response.’   This makes bears sound pretty scary.  We wondered how that could be after hearing many people say “I saw a black bear.  I ran one way, and it ran the other.”

The usual advice just didn’t figure.  Did some administrator need to come up with advice and write something based on cats and dogs?  Once something is written, it gets repeated so many times it becomes fact in people’s minds—especially if it comes from a government agency.   The advice seems to be based on the underlying assumption that black bears would love to attack us if they only dared, which we know is not true for the vast, vast majority of bears.

We asked many authors and educators who gave that advice if they could illustrate it with an actual example.  In many years of asking, we found one person, a biologist, who said he knew a case like that, but he didn’t give details.  We think there might be confusion between running “triggering” an attack and running when a person is already under attack or being severely threatened.

A couple stories will illustrate.  In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in September 1987, a rogue female black bear weighing 117 pounds made rare predatory attacks on two people before rangers shot her.  One of the people ran, the other didn’t.  Both were attacked.  Running didn’t make any difference—didn’t trigger the attack.  In the first attack, the bear approached a camper sitting on a rock just offshore in a lake.  The man stood up.  The bear moved back and forth in front of him, then stood up and bit the man on the shoulder and started dragging him off.  Someone hit the bear with a canoe paddle and drove it off.  The next day, the bear approached another man and showed the same behavior.  The man ran and jumped in a shallow lake and swam.  He could touch bottom, so he stopped to see where the bear was.  It grabbed him and dragged him to shore.  The man’s son hit the bear with a canoe paddle and drove it off.  These predatory attacks are the only ones on record in the BWCAW in all the years that millions of people have visited it.

Another story involves a mother bear who was prone to charge.  This is not typical, though, because bears that actually charge are few and far between.  However, when we found one with that trait, we tested how she would respond to running.  The mother had a habit of charging right up to someone, clacking her jaws, and retreating.  You can see videos of her on 'How dangerous are bluff charges?'  That was back in 1987, and we haven’t found another charging wild bear like that since.  To test her response to running, an ‘old researcher’ took the easy job.  He lay down with his camera—ready to get a picture of a charging bear up close—and instructed his assistant to prompt a charge and then run past him.  The assistant was instructed to keep running to see what the mother bear would do.  He ran past the prone researcher with the bear on his heels.  When he glanced back at the bear, he tripped over a piece of equipment.  Did the bear pounce on the prone assistant?   No.  The bear made fancy moves to avoid touching him and retreated back to her cubs.

A related misconception is that if a black bear senses fear it will attack.  This misconception is based on the same underlying assumption mentioned above.  In reality, most people who encounter black bears close-up are afraid and they are not attacked.

Again, thank you for the generous donations today.  We very much appreciate all the ways many of you are helping, and we look forward to meeting those of you who are coming to Ely this summer.

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

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