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October 3, 2009

What to Do About Black Bears

Attracted to food inadvertently left out, bears are increasingly common in some backyards

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Plant foods make up the bulk of a black bear's diet. iStockphoto.com

  • This guy may be looking for a good vantage point, or escaping an enemy. iStockphoto.com

  • Black bear mothers are great teachers. iStockphoto.com

  • Bears do scat in the woods. The HSUS.

It used to be that most problems between bears and humans were confined to agricultural or wilderness areas.

But more bears are being seen in the suburbs. The spread of suburbia into bear habitat in combination with the conversion of old farms back into forests may be why. 

Although run-ins with bears don’t happen that often, they are large and powerful animals, so any chance meeting with one could be serious.

The best response to any increase in bear encounters isn’t to manage bear populations through hunting or actions intended to shrink local bear populations. It is to teach people how to behave in bear country, and—when necessary—teach bears to avoid people.   

Common problems and solutions

How to avoid a black bear attack
A note about wayward bears
Public health concerns
Resources

Common problems and solutions

Denning: Bears have been known to spend the winter under decks or porches, especially in summer homes or houses that are not always in use.

Eating: They will raid gardens and get into trash. Bird feeders, dirty grills, and pet food left outdoors are sure to attract a hungry bear.

Damage: Black bears have also been known to cause serious damage to beehives and some field crops.

Tolerance

If you see a black bear in your yard, don’t fear the worst. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Your yard may be in the path of a youngster who’s just left home and is looking for a place of his own. Or you may be visited by an adult who smells something good or hears something interesting. Usually when he finds out there are humans around, he’ll head for the hills, never to be seen again.

Avoid creating “Nuisance Bears”

But if a bear finds food without getting chased away, he may well come back for more. Each time he returns for a free meal and doesn’t get frightened away, he can become less fearful of humans—and this habituation can lead to problems.

Bears that lose their fear of humans are called “nuisance bears.” In many states, they are killed or trapped and moved far away in hopes that they won’t come back. Most of the time, it wouldn’t have been necessary to kill the bear if people hadn’t made food so easy to find in the yard or trash dumpster.

How to keep bears out

Make trash cans inaccessible. Don’t put trash cans outside at night, but if you must, then buy a “bear-resistant” trash can or enclosure for your trash container. 

Rethink your compost pile. Open compost piles aren’t a good idea in bear country, especially those that include kitchen compostables. Burying compost won’t work, because bears will easily dig it up if they like the way it smells.

Recycle wisely. If you store recyclables outside, use enclosed bins. (Even ruggedly built bins may be broken into by persistent bears.) 

Keep barbeque grills clean and as free of drippings as possible. Move the grill away from your house when you aren’t using it.

Set up birdfeeders away from your house. If bears are visiting feeders eliminate feeding for a while, or stop altogether in the summer when birds can easily make do with naturally available foods.

A community approach

It takes a community to keep the bears away. Here are steps we suggest:

Pass (and enforce) laws that require residents, businesses, and municipalities to use bear-resistant garbage containers. Impose fines on people who knowingly or unknowing feed bears.

Educate the public through informational flyers. It is very important (especially in communities with many tourists) to teach people how to live with bears.

Educate bears, too. Some communities have started programs to help strengthen the natural shyness bears have toward humans.

These programs use “adverse conditioning” when a bear is found doing what he ought not. Experts in aversive conditioning employ rubber bullets, pyrotechnics (fireworks), and pepper spray to change unwanted bear behavior without killing the bear.

Train police and animal control officers to handle incidents with bears. When someone sees a bear they usually call the police or animal control first. If these professionals know aversive conditioning techniques, they can eliminate many conflicts before they escalate.

How to avoid a black bear attack

Because black bears are more likely than other bears to run away from humans—even when surprised—you can minimize your chances of being attacked if you follow certain rules. These rules don’t apply to encounters with brown, grizzley, or polar bears, which are much more dangerous.

  • Never move towards a black bear to chase him away.
  • Make as much noise as possible by shouting or banging pot lids together.
  • Throw things at the bear.
  • Making yourself look as big as possible by spreading your arms or, better yet, a coat.
  • Never run. If a black bear charges, stand still.
  • After the bear leaves, make sure to remove whatever attracted him to the location (barbeque grill, bird feeder, pet food, or garbage). 

A note about wayward bears

When a young bears leave home to find of a place of their own, they sometimes find themselves in suburbia without a good idea of how to get out. Every so often, a bear climbs a tree, a telephone pole, or anything she can reach to get away from people, who panic when they see a bear out of the woods.

Many times these bears are killed because they are seen as a threat and people don’t know how to deal with them. Ideally, this would mean simply backing off and letting the bear come down and move away on her own terms. 

Where this cannot be done safely, most state wildlife agencies will step in and provide professional services to capture and relocate the bear. Some animal care and control agencies may provide such assistance as well.  

Public health concerns

There is little to be concerned about when it come diseases or parasites that humans can catch from bears. As a warm blooded animal, bears can get rabies, but it is very rare. There are no known cases of a person catching rabies from a bear.

Resources

» Linda Masterson’s Living With Bears: A practical guide to bear country, (PixyJack Press, 2006) http://www.pixyjackpress.com/livingwithbears.html.
» The Get Smart Bear Society has a guidebook to non-lethal resolution of human-bear conflicts http://www.bearsmart.com/.
» Steve Searles; pioneer of aversive conditioning strategies for bears: P.O. Box 8835, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546, 760-934-6742 http://www.thebearwhisperer.com/.
» Electric fencing kits are sold for bears, especially to be used for temporary installations at camp sites or seasonal homes. Margo Supplies, Ltd.,403-652-1932.
» The North American Bear Center website is packed with information for both adults and kids.
» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife conflict resolution service. Learn More
» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors; the go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife.

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