I ask you, why all the bears? A black bear was observed wandering about in Manchester, Missouri, a city about 12 miles outside of St. Louis. Now Manchester is a city of @60,000 residents AND is closely encased by other cities just as large. In other words in an urban sprawl of 250,000 people and relatively no wilderness except county parks, a black bear suddenly appears. Why? How? Why all the bears in areas they wouldn’t normally inhabit?
Bears and Their Geographic Range: Per United States Parks Service
Traditional knowledge placed bears in certain geographic ranges which helped a hiker or camper anticipate the odds of encountering a bear in the wild. There are 3 types of bears in the continental United States, black bears, brown bears and grizzly bears. Polar bears inhabit Alaska and Canada and are considered the most dangerous to man, followed by grizzlies, then black bears.
The black bear has the largest geographic range which includes Canada, Alaska, western and eastern United States, with small patches in the central and southern United States. Grizzlies roam Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska and western Canada. The geographic ranges of these 3 types of bears will have some overlap, while polar bears are exclusively Alaska and Canada.
No where in this highly regarded report does it mention black bears being located in the Midwest, in the middle of 250,000 people. Why all the bears? There are numerous theories of why the sudden change in bear behavior, some more valid than others, but all making their points.
1. Climate change has forced bears out of their normal habitat is one theory. The temperature climb in the southern United States has forced the bears farther north seeking relief.
2. Areas of water, bayous, swamps, marshes are being drastically changed either from man-made alterations or the rising water table due to global warming and the ice melt.
3. They are constantly forced out of their natural habitat. Just about the time the bears establish a family and a hunting area, contractors come in and build million dollar homes which force them out of the area.
In reality it doesn’t matter why the bears are suddenly showing up in non-traditional areas, they are. So what does that mean for us? Let’s explore that question.
It’s a good idea to be able to identify your potential enemy or friend. A polar bear is obvious as they are white, however the difference between a grizzly and a black bear can be deceiving and a mistaken identity could have severe consequences.
The color of the bear’s fur is not always a 100% accurate method for telling the specie of bear you’re looking at, as black bears are not always black, but also have dark brown-blonde fur mixed in similar to the grizzly bear. A more accurate method is looking at the bear’s back between the shoulder blades, as a grizzly will have a large hump of muscle where a black bear will not. Another method is size, as the grizzly will be one and a half to twice the size of a similar age and gender black bear. The last method is to carefully observe fresh bear tracks, as a black bear has a shorter and more curved claw than a grizzly. No matter the species proceed with extreme caution as you know bears are in the area.
Ways to Avoid a Bear Encounter:
It used to be said the only sure guarantee of avoiding a bear encounter is to stay out of bear habitats, but the recent sightings in highly populated areas makes that theory, although 99% correct, not 100% accurate. In any event for many people avoiding nature is not an option. They will continue, and with good cause, to hike, camp, bike, hunt, or your job may require you to venture into bear country. So if you’re where bears live, let’s see how to reduce our chances of an encounter.
The temptation to be stealthy, not disturbing nature so you can hear the singing of the birds and buzzing of the humming bird, can be a deadly mistake. Make your presence known when hiking by hiking in a group or talking, singing or blow a whistle every 20 yards or so. This allows the bear to know he’s not alone and will offer it time to walk away in order to avoid an encounter. Unless something unusual is involved, such as perceiving her cubs are threatened, a bear will try to avoid contact with humans. *** Always be on the lookout for active bear signs, tracks or scat. Avoid berry patches and stream banks where bears are more likely to be feeding.
For those old enough to remember Yogi Bear cartoons you’ll remember the “Picnic basket” is what Yogi was always after. That’s not only true in cartoons but in real life also, as food is the most likely reason a bear would invade your campsite. Here are some suggestions for not enticing a bear to visit.
1. Any food, such as snacks, jerky packets, etc. should be double bagged and hung in a tree a minimum of 14 feet above the ground and at least 4 feet away from the trunk of the tree. Remember, bears are excellent climbers, but the height and 4 foot reach for the food may very well discourage the bear.
2. It’s a better idea to use plastic containers that can be securely sealed, containing the smell of food, and store them in your vehicle if possible. Remember to roll the windows all the way up before leaving the vehicle alone.
3. Always be conscious of where you set your tent up especially concerning the storage of food. No matter how careful you prepare, the chances of a bear smelling food is always a possibility, and if it does, you want that food source as far away from your tent as is reasonably practical. Suggested distance is 100 yards, but that is usually unreasonable or undo-able. However, do not leave food wrappers, leftovers or dirty dishes out and definitely never store food inside your tent.
4. Speaking of tents. Be vigil on where you set your tent up. It may be tempting to back your tent up to a brush or heavily treed area where you can see a spectacular view from the opening or sitting in front of the tent, but that can be dangerous. You need a 360 degree clear line of sight in order to spot a bear, or any other animal, approaching.
Close Encounter of the Scary Kind: **Bear Spray Can Save Your Life
First things first … if you spot a bear in the distance simply slowly back up, at least a 100 yards, and find another route around the bear. If you’re on the only path available, wait 20 to 30 minutes before proceeding forward again. Be sure to make noise, talking, singing, whistling, in order to announce your presence and afford the bear time to move away. The worse thing to do is to surprise a bear, as a frightened bear is more likely to attack.
One thing for sure, should you encounter a bear close up, both your heart and the bear’s heart will be pounding with fear and apprehension. This is when the ability to identify the type of bear you have encountered is critical because your actions will vary for each type of bear.
Should you round a blind corner, forgetting to announce your presence, and encounter a black bear, who is as startled as you are:
1. Stop immediately…
2. Stand your ground, do not turn and run…
3. Analyze the situation staying as calm as possible…
4. If the bear does not move towards you, most likely instantly, slowly retreat by carefully stepping backwards… Be sure of your footing. You are scared and walking backwards. It would be easy to entangle your feet in brush or roots and fall. This could be catastrophic and provoke a charge.
5. If the bear moves towards you, make yourself as large as possible. (For instance, if you’re wearing a coat, spread it out like a bird does its feathers.) Use a loud stern voice and order the bear to go away. Do not scream, wave arms, jump up or down, or any perform any other harsh sounds or movements which could provoke an attack. Repeat your orders as necessary.
6. God willing you have used your head and have a bear repellent spray with you. If the bear continues to approach, wait until the bear is between 20 – 30 feet away and spray a steady stream of repellent at the bear’s face, which will deter the animal if your aim is true. Use these same techniques should a black bear approach your campsite.
Remember I said it was important to properly identify the bear type. A grizzly bear is much more aggressive than black bears and extremely difficult to discourage, therefore an attack is much more likely should you treat the grizzly like the black bear. Attempting to make yourself large or yelling commands to go away will most likely be perceived as a threat and will most likely provoke an aggressive reaction.
Stand perfectly still, keep your eyes on the bear to see its reaction, but do not make eye contact, as with most wild animals this is perceived as a challenge. If the grizzly approaches slowly, but comes too close for comfort, use your bear repellent spray to deter the advance. If the bear does not demonstrate movement towards you, slowly back away while keeping your eyes on the bear at all times. Never turn your back or run from a bear.
Surviving the Unimaginable:
The National Park Service classifies bear attacks in two categories: (1) Defensive attacks and / or (2) Predatory attacks. Knowing the difference in the bear’s motivation and what type of attack is occurring may help you determine what actions you are going to take in order to react and survive.
Most bear attacks are defensive in nature. They are classified as such because the bear is generally surprised and caught off guard by the sudden human presence which creates an instinctive reaction of attack to defend cubs, food, or their territory. Experts claim most grizzlies and black bears are defensive in nature seldom predatory, but I beg to question that assumption. Polar bears have been known to track and attack humans as to them man is on the menu.
*** Despite instinct never run from a bear as they are much faster than we are and sensing your flight as a fleeing animal will run you down. The only exception is if you think you can reach safety, like getting inside a car, before the bear can close on you.
In my humble opinion a bear attack, whether defensive or predatory is an unimaginable horrific event with no difference in my decibel of screaming or amount of soiling my pants. However, there is a difference in the bear’s mind of intent and since it is calling the shots, that’s important.
What to Expect from a Defensive Attack:
Since defensive attacks are the most common attack let’s look at what to expect from the bear. I must stress, these are expected normal actions, but you don’t know what’s going on inside the bear’s head, so don’t bet your life on any one “normal” action.
Common bear reactions are:
1. Hopping up and down
2. Faking charges, running at you for a few feet then stopping and retreating
3. Slapping, clawing at the ground tearing up dirt
4. Roaring, huffing or clacking of teeth
These are but a few methods of how a bear tells you it does not welcome your presence and unless you want to do battle, you better leave now. There are times the bear will stand on its rear legs either to get a better view of you, a better smell and as a method of intimidation while determining the threat you pose. If the bear does not attack after performing one or more of these actions, slowly back away, again always facing the bear. Never turn your back on a bear or run away from it.
Should the bear actually charge in attack mode, use your bear repellent spray, directly into the face, eyes and nose. Do not stop until the bear retreats or you run out of spray. Should the spray not stop the bear and it makes physical contact with you, immediately fall to the ground, if you aren’t knocked down already, and play dead. Hopefully the bear will consider the threat eliminated and leave. However, don’t count on that.
*** A grizzly bear will charge in a direct line, a black bear will tend to zig zag (weave back and forth) usually from behind cover***
Lay flat on your stomach, interlace your fingers over your neck, spread your elbows and legs which makes it harder for the bear to turn you over. Another position is to curl up into a tight fetal position, again with your fingers interwoven over your neck in order to protect the vulnerable bare neck and head.
Essentially the theory during a bear defensive attack is to out wait the bear. The bear does not intend to eat you, its simply trying to eliminate a perceived threat and the killing of said threat fulfills that quest. Generally, once the bear considers the threat eliminated it will leave the area. Continue to lie on the ground and very still for at least 20-30 minutes. I know that will seem like a lifetime, but bears are notorious for lurking just out of sight watching the prey (you) to insure you are dead. Move too soon and it very well may provoke another attack.
If the attack continues and you decide the bear is not going to leave before you are seriously injured, begin to fight back. If you haven’t used your bear repellent yet, bear closed too fast, use it now. If you have a knife, draw it and use it. If rocks and sticks are the only available weapons, use them and viciously attack the face, sensitive spots like the eyes and nose. Spare nothing … you are fighting for your life.
Life or Death Predatory Attack: Why all the Bears?
Make no mistake about it, this is a life or death struggle between you and the bear. It considers you dinner and will not leave without eating. Here are some tactics to use:
1. Although being much easier said than done, you must not panic, your number one coping mechanism is a clear head.
2. Try and make yourself look as large as possible. Wave your arms, jump up and down, make a lot of noise. That’s contrary to what you’ve been told, but not doing anything to provoke an attack is one thing, but this is an attack. Some experts claim loud noises have the best effect on small bears, but can induce larger bears to investigate. At this point who wants to argue … you want to survive.
3. If you have a backpack on, leave it on as it serves as extra protection.
4. Avoid eye contact, however never take your eyes off the bear. Know what it is doing at all times.
5. At night, always carry a strong flashlight in which to shine into the bear’s eyes, blinding it. A flash camera or phone flash can also temporarily blind it and give you the chance to escape.
6. Avoid sudden movements and never run, as the bear can run up to 40 mph (64 km/h) Can you?
7. Never hide in something flimsy like a tent. The bear will not be fooled into thinking you suddenly disappeared, and it may jump start its urge to forage for you.
8. The most common advise by experts pertaining to climbing trees … don’t. Bears are expert climbers, but a large bear may consider it not worth the effort to climb after you, but don’t count on it. That would mean the charge was defensive, but we’re in a predatory charge situation. If you do find yourself climbing to escape injury, climb quickly in order to get higher than a bear standing on their hind legs, and climb into branches not strong enough to carry a 300 lb + bear.
9. Creating distance between you and the bear is your best defense. Try and put a tree or a large rock between you and the bear. Barehanded, or even with a knife, you can not get to the bear before it can reach you. Distance is an ally.
Exploiting a Bear’s Weaknesses:
Perhaps weaknesses is too strong of a word. Maybe capitalize on any advantage you can obtain may be a better way to put it.
1. First, try to defend yourself on a steep slope or grade. This won’t stop a bear attack, but by utilizing the slope you hinder the bear’s ability to stand erect, which reduces its ability to use its full weight against you. The sheer weight and size of the bear crashing onto you could kill you. Attacks from the side may be difficult for the bear, due to its large neck muscles flexibility of the head is restricted, which in turn limits the bear’s peripheral eyesight.
2. Don’t be tempted to hide, unless the bear is unaware of your presence, because a bear’s eyesight is every bit as good as a human’s.
3. When fighting for your life you must be quick, you must maintain or increase distance between you and the bear, you must be aggressive and you must try to avoid the bear’s strength of a swipe.
4. Do a straight line gut kick, the type of kick performed by police when breaching a door, which can be surprisingly effective. Strike and quickly retract your leg before the bear can swipe your inner thigh, thus disabling you.
5. Do not attempt to punch the bear with your fist. Why? Number one unless you land a direct blow to the nose, you’ll hurt your hand more than the bear, but more importantly you expose your arm and hand to the bear’s mouth and all those teeth.
6. Fight with anything you can get your hands on. Sticks, rocks, knife, baseball bat, anything to cause harm is fair to use. Just be careful when picking up a weapon, never take your eyes off the bear as they could swipe while you’re bent over and not watching.
7. Whenever possible, strike and move uphill, strike and move uphill. Staying uphill from the bear allows you a better chance to inflict injury, thus offering you an opportunity to escape.
8. Above all, try to maintain distance. A bear can kill an elk or deer with one swipe of that powerful paw, you cannot withstand a direct strike to any part of your body. You will either be killed instantly, or disabled unable to fight any longer.
Remember these things when considering why all the bears:
• Be vigilant when entering bear country
• Carry a weapon, at least bear repellent spray
• Learn all you can about bear actions
• Fight with all your strength and never give up.
Why all the bears? I have no idea, but they are there, you have been warned and I’d suggest re-reading this article as it could save your life.