Black Bears Part III: Safety

March 18, 2009

Note: This series is based on personal experience, but it is important to note that any wild animal is capable of being extremely dangerous. Seek expert guidance if you are interested in serious photography or research ventures.

No matter who you are, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with black bears and how they behave.

Generally speaking, bears are more wary of humans than they are given credit for. If given the choice, they will often flee. For example, a gentle cruise on Skyline Drive may provide you a glimpse of a bear, but more than likely, the sound of your engine has already cleared the area.

082108bear1edThere are two approaches to hiking with consideration to bears. The first is hiking in a large group and making noise as you go along. Simply talking will often indicate to bears that something foreign is around and they should leave. The other approach is to travel alone and be quiet. Although your odds of a sighting increase with this method, it is important to know what to do if you notice a bear.

I often carry a whistle and will take it out, placing it in my mouth while photographing. Maintain a significant distance and use the longest lens available for your camera. Do not be the tourist (who I’ve seen multiple times) walking up to a tree with a bear in it and snapping photos with a point and shoot from below it. The most extreme example of that included said tourist with a kid under one arm and a camera in the other. Just don’t do it!

Ideally, someone can have a glimpse and make a few images and move on. If the animal hasn’t left the area, find the most distant path around its location. While looking, try not to stare down the animal, as that is often seen as a threat. If it should raise up on its back legs, chances are that it just wants a better look at what’s going on, nothing more.

Whatever you do, don’t think you’ll be a good guy if you try to feed a wild animal. More than likely you are sentencing the bear to death because it will associate people with food and become a nuisance animal. And in the immediate situation, don’t feed a bear that you don’t want to come back for seconds!

Observing the face of a bear can tell you a lot about how it is feeling. Pay attention to the ears. Much like a household animal, if the ears swing back along the head, that is an aggressive posture. I’ve never seen it, but I’m not complaining. They are also capable of making a smacking sound with their mouths if they are feeling uncomfortable. I have only once heard that sound from a mother with cubs. Which brings me to my next point – Do not come between a group of bears with cubs. Although that’s more relevant with brown bears, it’s always wise to observe from the furthest safe vantage point you have available. According to the North American Bear Center of Ely, Minn., black bear sows with cubs are not known to be as dangerous as grizzly bears, and it is a common misconception that attacks will occur in the defense of black bear cubs.


If a bear feels cornered or threatened, it may charge. Chances are that this is a bluff charge. Stand your ground and DO NOT RUN. Running from a bear is a bad idea. You won’t outrun it and it could take up the chase, like a pet dog. Either way, if you are in a national park and a bear charges, report it to a ranger so they are aware of the animal.

Remember the grizzly bears I mentioned earlier? One safety consideration is much different than what you may have been told about grizzlies. Grizzly attacks are often defensive and experts advise curling in a fetal position until the animal backs off. Black bears are exactly the opposite. If the rare possibility of an attack comes true, make yourself seem large and fight back.

Bears aren’t something to fear, but to be understood. Keep these things in mind and you’ll be an informed observer.

Tune in tomorrow for the next segment, “Photography.”

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