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.
Bears are spotted around Yankee Lake almost every summer. We should start out by making it clear that there are no grizzly bears anywhere close to Yankee Lake. This article is strictly about black bears and is not the same advice you should follow if you are in grizzly bear territory. Black bears by nature tend to be wary of humans and avoid people. However, if you encounter a black bear in your neighborhood or outdoors, follow the tips contained in this article to help keep you and your family safe.
Adult female bears, called sows, weigh about 175 pounds. Adult males, called boars, weigh about 400 pounds. They are about 3 feet high when standing on all four feet, 5 to 7 feet high when upright, and they can live for more than 25 years. Black bears are omnivores (eat both meat and plants). They primarily eat vegetation – grasses, plants, berries, and acorns. But they also regularly dine on bees, ants, termites, fish, compost piles, and garbage. Their dietary changes are evident in the piles of scat left behind.
In the East, “black bears” may be black, brown, or cinnamon colored, but none are grizzlies. They spend the winters in dens to avoid cold weather and lack of food in forests. They go into a long winter’s sleep, called torpor. They are not true hibernators, so they may wake up on mild days to search for food and males typically emerge before females.
Adult females give birth to baby bears, called cubs. Breeding occurs June through July; cubs are born in January or February, and weigh between 8 and 16 ounces. They are born blind, nurse their mother’s milk, three is the average litter size, and twins are common. Cubs are weaned by September, weigh about 80 pounds by the time they are a year old, leave their mother when about 18 months old, and are then called yearlings. When they leave their mother, yearlings establish their own area, called a home range. Black bears are strong swimmers, climb trees, move rocks, and tear logs apart in search of insects. Even though they are large animals, they can seem almost completely silent as they travel through the forest.
If you encounter a black bear in your neighborhood or outdoors, treat them with respect. Remain calm. Never go closer to it. Stay back. Never feed a bear, or put food out deliberately to attract a bear. Never try to pet a bear! Never deliberately approach a bear! They are usually just looking for food and water. They are not interested in you unless you smell like food. Leave them alone and they will probably leave you alone.
The exception is if there is a cub involved. Never get between an adult bear and a cub. That is the worst place to be!
Bears do not see well, so it helps to make yourself or your group look and sound like something big. Let a bear know you are there by waving your arms and talking very loudly, and this may scare them away. If you are with friends, get in a big group, wave your arms, and make noise.
Always make sure the bear has an escape route. You do not want them to feel trapped. Make sure the bear can get out of your path and yard easily. Do not block the exit. This is especially true if a bear enters your home, where walls can easily make it feel surrounded. Provide it with an escape route by propping doors open.
Bears have a strong sense of smell, which may lead them to your garbage, birdseed or pet food if it is available in your yard. Unfortunately, we here at Yankee Lake have trained bears to wander the roads around our lake, because we put out garbage that attracts them. They are learning that those standardized garbage cans at the street contain food. We must un-train them!
Keep your garbage in a secure location in a bear-resistant container. Secure the lids of your garbage cans! The bear will knock the cans over and roll them around trying to get the lids to pop open. Pictured here is how Yankee Laker Doug Spranger modified his garbage cans to make them bear resistant. Don’t leave your garbage cans at roadside until collection night.
The outside of the garbage cans are often not clean, and the smell attracts the bear to investigate. Those big noses of their’s can detect faint garbage odors for quite a distance away. So, please bleach the cans periodically, inside and out, to kill any smell. After parking your garbage can at the street the night before pick-up, spray the outside of the can with diluted ammonia.
Do not put any bags of garbage alongside the can for pickup. The bear will rip the bag open and scatter it along the road and in the woods. And it will be your job to pick it all up!
Please only put your garbage cans out near the road the night before pick-up. If you are here on weekends only, then research to see which garbage companies pick up on Monday mornings. Leaving your weekend garbage at roadside several days until mid-week for pick-up is just inviting trouble.
Don't have food visible inside your home from a window. If bears see something through your window that looks (and smells!) like food, they might try to get inside. A window screen or door screen is no deterrent to a bear. They are especially attracted by sweet smells. One of the rare home invasions by a bear that we have had at Yankee Lake was when cookies were being baked.
Bird feeders are bear feeders! Birdseed attracts bears, and they especially love sunflower seeds. It is best to only feed birds in the winter when the bears are in their dens. Put bird feeders out in November but bring them in the first of March. Only have hummingbird feeders out in the spring and summer.
If, however, you insist on putting bird feeders out during bear season, then hang your bird feeders at least 10 feet off the ground, 10 feet away from tree branches, and pick up seeds that spill on the ground.
The bear also love blueberries. If you are out picking wild berries in the woods, be very aware of your surroundings. Bears can be very quiet. You might discover yourself on the opposite side of the same bush. A bear could perceive you as trying to steal its food. Stay alert.
Outdoor grills and picnic tables can have lingering smells of food. Always burn off your grill when done cooking, and thoroughly clean outdoor tables after eating. Hose them down, if possible. If not, sponge down with dilute bleach or spray with dilute ammonia. (Never mix bleach and ammonia, however. That creates chlorine gas!)
Try not to feed your pets outside, except during the day. Please clean up any food they do not eat and bring the food bowl inside when done. Protect your pets by bringing them indoors at night or secure their pen, and walk your dog on a leash. Although bears often shy away from barking dogs, if a bear feels threatened by your dog, it could easily kill your pet.
If camping, keep a clean campsite. Do not store food in or near your tent. The bear will come into the tent looking for it, and you will have no way out. Keep food items and sweet-smelling things like toothpaste out of your tent and in the trunk of your car.
When hiking, what you don't want to do is to seemingly sneak up on a bear and startle it. So, make noise by singing, whistling, talking, or jangling your keys to alert bears to your presence.
Make the bear aware of your presence by speaking in an assertive voice, yelling, clapping your hands, blowing a whistle, banging pots and pans, using an airhorn or making other noises. Avoid direct eye contact. A bear’s vision is not good, so make your blurry self look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with your arms raised above your head, waving and yelling. Never run from a bear. Instead, slowly back away (don't trip!), and get to a safe area.
A bear that stands up on its hind legs or moves closer, is trying to get a better view of you, and pick up better on your scent. This is usually not a threatening behavior. But if you have food or candy in your hands, pockets, backpack, etc. – get rid of it! That may be what has gotten the bear’s attention.
The bear may utter a series of huffs, make popping jaw sounds by snapping its jaws, and it may swat the ground. These are warning signs that you are too close. Slowly back away, avoid direct eye contact, and do not run.
Black bears will sometimes “bluff charge” when cornered, threatened or attempting to steal food. Stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact, then slowly back away and do not run. If the bear does not leave, move to a secure area.
Families like yours who live or visit in areas with high black bear populations should have a “Bear Plan” in place for children, with whistles, air horns and an escape route.