This blog post on the black bear is the first in a series of articles that will help you do some fill-in to your brain attic (see blog post…Hiking Vision-To See or Not). The brain attic is the repository of our memory that we fill with key furniture that gives us discernment.
When hiking and we look at something it is the furniture we have deposited in our brain attic that gives us the foundation to understand what we are seeing and how to respond appropriately to it. In my blog post…Have You Hiked Today, I reviewed the necessity of knowing the Fauna and Flora of the habitat you are hiking. Todays post is spot-on the key subject of both articles noted above and that being an introduction to one of the most prevalent and interesting of the Fauna (wildlife, animals) that inhabit the hiking habitats of North America, the Black Bear.
My focus in today’s blog will be on characteristics, habits and hiking in their presence. I will dig more deeply into the subject of their lifestyle and life cycle in a subsequent post. First we must understand how to respond to their presence and then we will dig into how to discover their activities and trace their presence.
The black bear is the most prevalent bear in North America.
Their population is over twice that of the combined populations of all other bear species. So, if you are going to have a bear experience, it will most likely be with a blackie. Not that all black bears are black. They come in all shades black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray, or white.
So, where will you most likely find them?…Eating. They are opportunistic eaters, meaning they take advantage of whatever is available. They are carnivores by their taxonomic order but their diet is omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. 85% of their typical diet is plant material and 15% animal protein. They are much more likely to take a kill from a weaker predator than to stalk and kill themselves. Now for your autumn hikes, know that during that time of the year they often forage 20 hours a day seeking to increase their body weight by 35% in preparation for winter. It is called hyperphagia, the gorge themselves. Salmon, whenever available, are an important food source especially in the fall since they have a high fat content.
Bears have excellent memories for food sources. They learn about food types and locations, and reapply that knowledge. So if they have found that campers have food and they leave it out frequently, guess where they will be looking. Always use bear bags when in bear country and keep especially meats high and away from your tent.
Bears have good eyesight but not the best. They have exceptional hearing and their sense of smell is seven times greater than a dog, particularly for food-related scents. They poop in piles that are usually chuck full of seeds and other plant materials. Thus their scat is very discernible from that of herbivores (plant eating animals like deer) because the bears digestives system is designed for meat protein and is very inefficient in digesting plant materials. Thus their diet is expressed in their scat.
Black bears habitat is primarily forest, forest edges, and forest clearings. They have shorter curved and sharp claws. Thus they are good at climbing trees, which they do to escape predators, to find food, sleep and rest. Their claws are excellent for shredding and taking apart decaying logs in order to reach insect colonies, small mammals, etc.
But not only are black bears good tree climbers but they can also run 30 to 35 miles per hour and do so going up or down hills.
Also of note, bears are territorial. Males will range from 10 to 60 square miles and females usually 2.5 to 10 square miles. The males mark their territories by scratching or clawing trees as high as they can reach. The highest claw marks are those of the dominant male.
So how does this help those of us that are constantly hiking in bear country to remain on the good side of these fast, hungry, tree climbing critters?
First, an aggressive black bear is very rare; a bear will defend its young or food source if it feels threatened. A startled bear most often will flee rather than confront.
But, why put yourself in a position to be checking out their paw prints in person.
What we know is that when we see their scat, you know there are bears around. If you see rotten stumps torn up, you are likely seeing relevant signs of their presence. If you see claw marks on trees, they just left you a note of their presence. They are hungry all of the time and they love berries, blooms and bugs. So, if you are in a blueberry/ huckleberry patch in the mountains, make noise and watch for their activity. They do not want to see you so let them know you are around.
Black bears wear their emotions on their big furry sleeves and you’ll see signs of distress such as jaw popping, head turning, huffing or vocalizing, or aggressive slamming of their paws on the ground. If you see this activity, they are telling you to back off. But back off does not mean run.
The “don’t do’s” in a black bear encounter where stress is expressed include:
Do not look the bear in the eye; this is perceived as a challenge and a sign of dominance.
Never turn your back to a bear. If safe to do so, slowly walk backwards and give the bear as much space as possible.
If you are hiking with small children, pick them up (so they don’t scream or panic).
Talk calmly and quietly so the bear can identify you as a human. Do your are best to diffuse the situation.
The key is to never get yourself in a situation where you have stressed a bear. They don’t want it and you don’t want it. By being aware of their presence and giving them both notice and distance, you will likely never confront these generally shy and stable critters. Hiking afraid is not the answer. Being aware of what is going on in the habitat around you both protects you and opens the opportunity to enjoy and become exposed, always at a safe distance from wildlife, in the adventure of the neighborhood.
Respect and understanding the habits and characteristics of individual wildlife is the door to both cooperation and delight. With the correct furniture in your brain attic, you will comprehend what you are seeing and know how best to respond and respect your circumstances.
From what you have learned just in this post, you know the most effective defense from a bear attack.
Your ultimate redemption from the worst of circumstances rests on your understanding of your opponent’s weakest link. The black bear has one sense that is seven times more vulnerable than that of a dog. It is through knowledge and the application of that knowledge to your circumstances that you both see with comprehension and act with understanding. Bring your bear spray and know how to use it if you are going into the valley of the bears in the spring when the cubs are out and the valley is narrow.
I hope to see you on the trails of adventure.
With Hiking Stick In Hand,