Spring is not that far away, and soon bears will be waking up from their hibernation, and they will be hungry. By the time they wake from hibernation bears will have used most, if not all of the extra fat they put on in the fall to sustain them through the winter. Mothers with cubs will be especially eager for food as they have more mouths to feed, and lactating mothers will have lost up to 40% of their body weight during hibernation, while males will have lost 15 – 30% of their body weight.
Hibernation with bears is truly a remarkable subject. Bears will work all summer long preparing several dens, and in late October or early November they will choose a den to spend the next 5 or 6 months. During hibernation the bear’s body temperature, breathing, heart rate, and metabolism lowers severely. They do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate for the 5-6 months spent in the den. However new born cubs, which are usually born in late January, do not hibernate, they spend the next four or five months feeding from their mother, who is in a deep sleep the entire time. Imagine that, being born weighing only 12 ounces, in a cold, dark den, alone or with a brother or sister, and then instinctively finding your way to your food source for the next several months. It is actually one of Mother Nature’s most incredible acts of survival. By the time the cubs exit the den they will weigh 12 – 15 pounds.
Black bears used to inhabit every state (except Hawaii) in our country, they are very adaptable animals. But now, their population is around 300,000 in the United States, which is kind of sad. What is worse, more bears are killed every year because of encounters with humans, far more than are killed by hunters. Most of those bear deaths could be avoided if people who live in or near their habitat would understand the bear’s behavior better than they do, but that is not the case. That’s another topic to explore further at a later time.
Tonight I want to give you some tips about being safe this time of year with bears as we are just as eager to get out as they are. The main thing to keep in mind is what I said earlier, the bears are hungry and looking for food, and mother bears are very protective of their cubs. Here are some things to keep in mind as you head out into the wilderness this spring:
- Never cook or store food in or near your tent. I admit that I violate this rule on a regular basis; you can’t avoid that when you camp in a wall tent. It’s a risk that I take.
- Hang food and other items with strong odors out of reach of bears. Hang items at least 10 ft above the ground. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or bear-proof containers. Don’t forget that bears love things like toothpaste and shampoo, or anything else that smells sweet or fruity.
- Keep the area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, and wipe down tables.
- Burn garbage completely in a hot fire and pack trash out – don’t bury it.
Backcountry and Trail Precautions
- Don’t surprise bears. If you’re hiking, make your presence known. Make noise by talking loudly, singing, or wearing a bell. I attach small bells to my backpack, the kind used for fishing to alert an angler when a fish is taking his bait.
- If you can, travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect.
- Keep in mind that bears tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, so plan your hikes accordingly.
- Stay on marked trails and obey the regulations of the area you’re hiking/camping in. Once again, another rule I violate regularly, I prefer to venture way off the trails.
- If you’re hiking in bear country, keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs, and trees that bears have rubbed. Knowing bear sign gives you a sense of confidence.
If You Encounter a Bear
- Remain calm and avoid sudden movements.
- Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. If it changes its behavior, you’re too close, so back away.
- If you see a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, detour quickly and quietly.
- If a bear spots you, try to get its attention while it is still farther away. You want it to know you’re human so talk in a normal voice and waive your arms. I have a few interesting stories to tell you regarding this, but it definitely works.
- Remember that a standing bear is not always a sign of aggression. Many times, bears will stand to get a better view or smell, as they have poor eye-sight.
- Throw something onto the ground (like your camera) if the bear pursues you, as it may be distracted by this and allow you to escape.
- Some people say to never feed or throw food to a bear, but I once threw a sandwich at a bear charging at me over a game cart I was pulling with an elk carcass on it, and that saved me that day.
If a Bear Charges…
- Remember that many bears charge as a bluff. They may run, then veer off or stop abruptly. Stand your ground until the bear stops, then slowly back away. I’ve experienced this behavior very up-close, and while it is hard to just stand there, that is what you have to do.
- Never run from a bear! They will chase you and bears can run faster than 30 mph. If you have to run, run down hill. Because a bear’s front legs are shorter than their hind legs, they can’t run as fast down hill.
- Don’t run towards or climb a tree. Black bears and some grizzlies can climb trees, and any bear will be provoked to chase you if they see you climbing.
- If you have pepper spray, be sure that you have trained with it before using it during an attack.
If a Grizzly Bear Attacks…
- Play dead!
- Lie face down on the ground with your hands around the back of your neck.
- Stay silent and try not to move.
- Leave your pack on to protect your back.
- Once the bear backs off, stay quiet and still for as long as you can. Bears will often watch from a distance and come back if they see movement.
If a Black Bear Attacks…
- Be loud, waive your arms, and stand your ground.
- Fight back! Be aggressive and use any object you have. Gouge at the eyes and throat of the bear.
- Only if you are sure the bear attacking is a mother who is protecting its cubs, play dead.
- If you have pepper spray, use it. Begin spraying when it’s within 40 ft so it runs into the fog. Aim for the face.
In my years in the field I have had seven encounters with black bears, and none of them resulted in physical contact, although two of those encounters were pretty damn close. These things I have listed above are guide lines to follow; you can’t always adhere to all of them. The ones to pay special attention to are what happens when you encounter a bear.
For the most part, bears don’t want to have anything to do with you, they are just trying to survive. If you have children, always keep them close. If you have a spouse or partner that the relationship isn’t working out so well, put pieces of ham in their pockets before you head out for a hike in bear country.