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What to Do About Black Bears

Bear troubles in your neighborhood? Bird feeders and unsecured pet food, garbage and grills may be bringing them to your back door.

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Black bears eat mostly plants but sometimes find easy food sources in bird feeders, pet food and garbage. Photo by iStockphoto.com

  • Black bears are normally wary of humans. Photo by Alamy

  • Black bear mothers are protective of their cubs. Photo by iStockphoto.com

As black bear numbers increase in some North American communities and more people move into bear habitat, encounters between bears and people have risen. Whether you live in bear country or are just visiting, you can take simple steps to avoid conflicts.

Why bears lose their fear of humans

Bears have acute eyesight and hearing. Their sense of smell is seven times greater than a bloodhound’s. They have a keen ability to detect pet food, garbage, barbecue grills and bird feeders—and once they locate a food source, they remember where it is.

Bears are normally wary of people, but if a bear finds food without getting frightened away, he may come back for more. Each time this happens, he can become less fearful—and this habituation can lead to problems. Conflicts can heighten during hyperphagia, a feeding frenzy in late summer and fall in which bears bulk up for hibernation, gaining 3-4 pounds and consuming 20,000 calories a day.

Bears who lose their fear of people are called “nuisance bears.” These are most often subadult males—young bears who have just dispersed from their mothers and are still learning how to obtain food—and mothers with young cubs. In many states, nuisance bears are killed or trapped and moved far away in hopes that they won’t come back. But most of the time this outcome wouldn’t have been necessary if people hadn’t made food so easy to find in the yard or trash dumpster.

How to prevent conflicts with bears

To avoid habituating the bears in your area, follow these steps.

Make trash cans inaccessible. Bring them inside at night or buy a bear-resistant trash can or an enclosure for the container.

Enclose your compost pile. Open compost piles, especially those that include kitchen scraps, are an irresistible treat in bear country. Burying compost won’t work because bears will easily find and dig it up.

Recycle wisely. If you store recyclables outside, use enclosed bins. (Persistent bears will break into even ruggedly built bins.)

Keep your barbecue grill clean and as free of drippings as possible. Move the grill away from your house when you aren’t using it, and clean it regularly with ammonia or bleach.

Rethink your bird feeders. In the summer, birds can make do with naturally available foods. If you do set up feeders, install them away from your house.

Communities experiencing bear problems can take steps such as fining people who knowingly or unknowingly feed bears, requiring bear-resistant trash cans, distributing educational flyers and training police and animal control officers in aversive conditioning techniques that use rubber bullets, fireworks and pepper spray.

Biologist Stephen Herrero: “There’s no question that it’s possible for people and bears to coexist without serious problems if we’re willing to manage our food and garbage.” Read our story on how some communities in bear country are coping »

Why hunting doesn’t solve conflicts with bears

When communities start experiencing conflicts with bears, too often state wildlife agencies institute a hunt or raise the quota of an existing hunt. But a host of studies show that hunting does nothing to resolve human-bear conflicts; hunters target bears in the woods, not the ones causing problems near human habitation.

Hunting also does not permanently reduce bear populations. Numbers actually rebound with the increased availability of food.

What to do if you encounter a black bear

If you see a black bear in your yard, don’t fear the worst. A youngster may simply be passing through in search of a home of his own. Or an adult may be checking out an enticing smell or interesting sound. Usually when he finds out there are people around, he’ll head for the hills, never to be seen again.

If you do encounter a bear, remain calm and remember that the bear is likely more scared of you than you are of him. Attacks by black bears on people are very rare and most black bears can be easily scared away with the following approach:

  • Stand and face the bear directly. Never run away from or approach him.
  • Make yourself look as big as possible by spreading your arms or, better yet, a coat.
  • Make as much noise as possible by yelling, banging pots and pans or using other noisemaking devices.
  • If the bear approaches and you have bear spray, spray the bear as he approaches.
  • In the very rare case that a black bear does attack you, fight back (don’t play dead).
  • After the bear leaves, remove whatever attracted him to the location (barbecue grill, bird feeder, pet food or garbage).

(Please note that these directions are specific for black bears; check here for information about what to do if you encounter a grizzly bear.)

Bears and public health concerns

People have little to fear in terms of catching diseases or parasites from bears. As warm-blooded animals, bears can get rabies, but it is very rare. There are no known cases of a person catching rabies from a bear.

Other resources

  • The Get Bear Smart Society’s tips for nonlethal resolution of human-bear conflicts
  • Linda Masterson’s book Living With Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country
  • The Bear Whisperer Steve Searles, pioneer of aversive conditioning strategies for bears
  • Margo Supplies, Ltd., electric fencing kits sold for bears, especially for temporary installations at campsites or seasonal homes
  • Wild Neighbors, our guide for humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife
  • Humane Wildlife Services, our wildlife conflict resolution service for D.C. metro and South Florida residents
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