An in-depth look at the Black and Grizzly Bears and the potential danger they may present to the outdoor enthusiast. Suggested precautions and procedures for avoiding and surviving bear attacks and minimize the possibility of death or injury in a chance encounter.
The two major species of bear in North America are the Black Bear (Ursus americanus) with an estimated population of approximately 700,000 and the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) with an estimated population of 35,000.
The Black Bear is found in 40 of the lower 48 states, Alaska, northern Mexico and in every province of Canada with the exception of Prince Edward Island. The Grizzly Bear is restricted to Alaska, the North-West Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Both bears’ behavior is complex and often unpredictable. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to give appropriate advice to follow in all situations.
Surviving bear attacks requires understanding bear behavior and acting accordingly. There are four general stages of bear behavior:
- Bears having a natural fear of people based on the long history of hunting by man.
- Bears not afraid of people but rather habituated to contact with humans—meaning the bear became accustomed to human contact and human activity. They get used to the sight, sound, and smell of human beings. They do not get food from them nor are they harmed by them. Thus the bear simply gets used to people, will tolerate them at closer distances and will often ignore them.
- The Bears that are food-conditioned by humans. They eat human food and our garbage and behave quite differently from merely habituated bears. Food-conditioned bears have learned to associate “people” with “food” and are usually somewhat habituated to the sight, sound, and smell of human beings.
- Bears that regard people as a source of food and prey upon them, attack and eat them. This is not a recent phenomenon of bear behavior and accounts for an extremely small number of bear attacks. Interestingly, there are more documented cases of this occurring with the Black Bear than with the much more powerful and feared Grizzly Bear.
The Grizzly Bear is documented to have been involved in major incidents resulting in injured persons, mainly in the national parks. It is interesting to note that 80 percent of the attacks involved only single people and 20 percent involved two or three people. There was no evidence that larger groups had been attacked.
An analysis of these attacks reveals that 71 percent of injuries inflicted were by a mother Grizzly Bear with cubs. A more detailed examination of statistics reveals evidence of changing Grizzly Bear behavior.
An examination of the Black Bear attack statistics showed that of the deaths since 1900, only in few cases bodies showed indications of being used as a food source by the attacking bear. Half of the victims were people under the age of 18, and this is strong evidence to suggest that the majority of fatal attacks were from bears regarding the human as a food source.
In over 500 incidents of Black Bear attacks in National Parks between 1980 and 2000 documented by the forest park rangers only three cases required hospitalization beyond 24 hours. Outside of the parks, there were less than 10% of cases of serious injury were recorded.
Obviously, it is a very small number of Black Bears which have reached the behavioral stage of preying on humans. Why this change? Predator bears are always shot, and examination of remains reveals no explanation—they are not rabid, starving or in poor condition.
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One possible explanation is the increasing pressure on the bear population from people hiking and camping in the wilderness. Previously a greater number of the people in contact with bears were hunters, and the animals were conditioned to fear man.
Although the number of Black Bears behaving as human predators are extremely small, is there the possibility it will increase? Furthermore, will the same type of behavior manifest itself in the Grizzly Bear? This latter prospect is at least disconcerting since the Grizzly is quite a different creature, much more powerful, much larger and even more unpredictable with a notoriously bad temper.
Identifying bears to avoid bear attacks
It is crucial to be able to distinguish between the Black Bear and the Grizzly Bear, especially in areas where they have adjacent or common habitats. The overall color of a bear’s fur is not a reliable means of correctly identifying the species.
A Black Bear may vary in color from black through all shades of brown to cinnamon and even blond. Two useful identifiable characteristics are the white or off-white chest patch and the light colored snout.
Black Bears vary in size according to age and gender. A mature male may weigh up to 700 pounds, while a female may vary between 200 and 400 pounds. Size, therefore, is not a really accurate criterion for distinguishing between a Black and a Grizzly. The Black Bear is more agile than the adult Grizzly and it is able to climb trees.
Although the overall color of a Grizzly Bear varies as much as the so-called “Black Bear,” the tips of hair around the neck, shoulders, and flanks are often flecked with white, giving the bear a “grizzled” or silver-tipped appearance.
The two distinct features of the Grizzly Bear in the side profile are its distinct shoulder hump above the forelegs and the disc-shaped concave nose profile. From the front view, it has a distinct mutton chop jowl. The front claws of the Grizzly are much longer (1.5 to 3.9 inches) than those of the Black Bear.
Also, the weight and size of the Grizzly vary tremendously according to age and gender as a mature male weighs between 300 and 1,300 pounds and the female between 200 and 600 pounds. It is important to remember that when a Black Bear drops its head below the shoulders, a hump becomes apparent, but it is not as prominent as a Grizzly’s hump.
Seasonal bear behavior
Bears may hibernate in their winter dens from two to seven months, depending on the severity of the winter. The hibernation period is spread between November and May. In hibernation, they may lose 15 to 40 percent of their body weight, and the females will have nursed their offspring (usually two) after birth in mid-January. The bear’s main occupation during the spring, summer, and fall is eating, recovering from hibernation, and laying up fat in preparation for the next winter.
Knowledge of a bear’s eating habits and food sources is invaluable in avoiding them in the wild. In the spring, bears will seek food on early “green up sites.” e.g., in western Canada, south-facing avalanche slopes and sub-alpine meadows, which am snow free early and are favorite sources of food. Sources of food would include grasses, wildflowers, roots, bulbs, and tubers. This diet may be supplemented by carrion and ground burrowing rodents. As spring moves to summer, bears may move from the south- to north-facing slopes following the “green up” cycle, since the new growth tends to be higher in protein content.
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The best advice is to recognize abundant food sources and avoid them as possible bear sites. Throughout the summer, insects, larvae, grubs, and eggs, as well as wild honey, provide a source of food. Both species take live and dead mammals if they are available, e.g., newborn ungulates in the late spring and early summer.
Fish may be taken throughout the year, consistent with the time of the local spawning or run. In late summer and early fall, both species fatten on berries—huckleberry, salmonberry, crowberry, bearberry, buffalo berry, cranberry, strawberry, devil’s club, etc. Stay away from large berry patches at this time of year. Foods favored by the Grizzly Bear include willow, catkins, horsetails, buffalo berries, and bulbs, tubers, roots—plants which contain nutrients for the coming season’s growth.
Foods favored by Black Bears include dandelion heads, the cambium layer or sapwood of trees, salmonberry, devils club, cow parsnip, and angelica. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide illustrations of all these plants, and it is recommended that the readers become familiar with them by studying the relevant botanical field guides.
Preventing bear attacks
One of the best ways to prevent attacks is to recognize signs of bear activity and avoid their territory. The signs of bear activity are tracks, scats, tree markings, and diggings. There are three characteristics of tracks which can be useful in determining whether they belong to a Black Bear or a Grizzly Bear:
- The longer the distance between the toe and the claw prints, the greater the possibility it is a Grizzly, i.e., front claws 13 to 3.9 inches in length, hind claws 0.6-1.8 inches.
- Toe spacing. A Black Bear’s toe tracks are usually separate, and the Grizzly Bear’s toe tracks may be joined. When the ground is soft, it may be difficult to identify toe separation.
- The arc or curvature of the toe prints. The Black Bear’s tracks are characterized by showing a greater arc or curvature of the five-toe points.
If one can find a clear imprint of a bear’s tracks, the following simple measurement, using some sort of straight edge, will determine whether the tracks are those of a Black or Grizzly Bear. Line the straight edge up with the base of the big toe track and along the top of the pad imprint. Upon extending this line, if it should pass below the mid-line of the small toe print, the tracks are those of a Grizzly.
If the extrapolated line passes above the mid-line of the small toe, then the tracks are likely that of a Black Bear. The freshness of the tracks may be deduced from their clarity of imprint, the hardness of the ground and recent weather changes. Tracks of a family (mother and cubs) indicate a high danger potential since many of the bear attacks arise from a mother defending her cubs.
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Black bears tend to travel along the lines of least resistance, using game trails, footpaths, roads, watercourses, and ridges. Bears are essentially a more forest-oriented species, seeking small openings when the sun breaks through the canopy to stimulate plant growth as their feeding grounds.
Grizzly bears frequent the snow-free subalpine meadows in high summer but are also quite at home in the less open environment where meadow and forest meet. The cover is sought more particularly by the black bear for shade, shelter, and bedding.
It is difficult to differentiate between Black Bear and Grizzly bear droppings, although the droppings themselves may give backcountry dwellers a clue as to the bear’s whereabouts:
- Age – Generally speaking, the more moist and soft the scat appears, the more recent it is unless there has been recent precipitation. An examination of the vegetation under the scat may also provide a clue as to its age, as will the presence of insects or larvae.
- Composition – When the scat is black, runny, and odorous, possibly with some hair present, it is indicative of meat in the diet. Since bears may remain close to a kill or carcass for a number of weeks, it could be inferred from such a scat that the owner is still in the vicinity. The content of the scat will also provide evidence of where the bear is feeding so that those areas can be avoided. Any evidence of garbage in the scat (plastic, aluminum foil, etc.) suggests that the bear is garbage conditioned and may be unafraid of humans.
- Numbers – Numerous scats (3 to 10) in a small area, together with hair in trees and depressions in the ground, all within a 10-yard radius, may indicate a bedding area. More scats may indicate a prolonged load source and feeding area.
Occasionally, trees on well-used trails may be marked by bean, perhaps as a means of communication or delineation of territory. The damage may be extensive and obvious, or a few scratches and claw marks which are detected by close examination of fresh running sap. Both Grizzly and Black Bears overturn rocks and tear old rotting logs and stumps apart searching for insects and grubs.
The digging up of roots, bulbs, tubers and small ground-burrowing mammals (marmots, chipmunks, and squirrels) is usually more indicative of Grizzly Bear activity. The size of the digging may vary from a single scoop to an area extending to several hundred square feet. The age of the digging may be determined by examining the state of the vegetation buried by the excavated earth and the freshness of the earth itself.
In the second part of this article we will see how we can manage our campsite and how can we face encounter to prevent bear attacks.
This article has been written by Dan Mowinski for Prepper’s Will.