Editor’s Note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He will share a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.
By Richard Leighton
May is a restless month for black bears, Maine’s only bear species. They recently have come out of their winter dens and are just beginning their breeding season. You may well have been thrilled to see one already.
While seeing a black bear in the woods or a field can be a thrill, you should be aware of the recognized dos and don’ts designed to prevent that experience from becoming too thrilling. Keep in mind as you read this column that black bears seldom attack humans. But “seldom” does not mean “never.”
I’ll summarize below what wildlife officials in Maine and other states suggest as best practices to be employed when encountering a black bear in its habitat. I’ll also add a few things that I’ve learned from such encounters. But first, let’s review a bit of relevant black bear background from the wildlife literature.
Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the smallest and most encountered of the three bear species in North America. The other two species are the brown/grizzly and polar bears. In the United States, wild black bears are found only east of the Mississippi River. Maine wildlife officials estimate that our state has more than 35,000 black bears, which is more than any other New England state.
Most adult male black bears range from 250 to 800 pounds in weight, with females ranging from 100 to 400 pounds. They can climb trees remarkably well and some reports say that their top running speed is 35 miles per hour. Keep in mind those facts — size, climbing ability, speed — while you review the experts’ suggested dos and don’ts for bear encounters, below.
Before you take a walk in bear territory
Many experts recommend that, if you intend to walk where black bears might be out and about, you should carry bear spray containing liquid hot pepper (capsaicin) in a safety-protected can. The spray causes pain but will not permanently harm a bear or person. It is more effective than a gun, which may only wound a bear and make it charge. Sprayed black bears almost always retreat.
When you initially encounter a bear
If you see a bear (meaning adult, cubs or both together), stop walking; don’t panic; don’t offer your trail mix or other food to the bear. Make an authoritative sound that will get the animal’s attention, but that does not indicate that you are going to harm the bear. (A “Hey!” in a raised voice has worked for me in all of my four encounters.) If the bear flees, do not follow it.
If the bear doesn’t flee initially
Do not approach it. It’s a good sign if the bear stops walking, sits down or stands on its hind legs to look things over — you’ve probably encountered a thinking bear. Do not run. Do not climb a tree. Back away slowly, turn slowly and walk away slowly in the direction from which you came.
If the bear sees you and comes toward you
If you have spray, remove the safety on the can. Then, up the ante yourself by loudly yelling and throwing a stick, rock or other object at the bear. Most black bears will then decide to avoid a confrontation and flee. Do not follow a fleeing bear.
If the bear exhibits aggression, but does not actually charge
When they feel threatened, some black bears will “act out” to scare away the threat. They may blow, snort, pop jaws, stamp and even do two-foot bluffed charges. Take the bear’s good advice and leave in the ways indicated above. If the bear is uncomfortably close and you have spray, give the undecided bear’s face one burst. That should make it flee. (The experts say that the spray does not increase aggression, it dissipates it.)
If the bear charges and attacks
This would be an extremely rare aggressive black bear, perhaps an injured one. Such a bear likely will back off only if significant counter-aggression is shown. Do not play dead. Use as much spray as you can on its face and yell your most blood-curdling screams. If the bear makes physical contact, kick and punch and use anything you can find as a weapon to hurt it. Avoiding confrontations is a built-in black bear trait; try to make the bear remember that.
Now that I’ve scared you, it’s time to calm down and realize that you’re probably more likely to be in a car accident than be attacked by a black bear. Go out and enjoy the woods and be thrilled if you see a black bear. But give the bear the respect it deserves.