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What should you not do when you see a black bear?

Encountering a black bear in the wild can be an alarming experience. While black bears are generally not aggressive towards humans and attacks are rare, knowing how to respond appropriately is crucial for both human and bear safety. The most important things to avoid doing if you encounter a black bear include: screaming, running away, making direct eye contact, and approaching the bear. Remaining calm, backing away slowly, and making yourself appear large are often recommended actions. This article will provide a quick overview of black bear behavior, explain what actions you should avoid, and offer tips on how to respond in a safe, responsible manner.

What is typical black bear behavior?

Black bears are North America’s most common and widely distributed bears. An adult male averages 100-300 lbs while females weigh 90-250 lbs. They are omnivorous, eating grasses, roots, berries, insects, fish, small mammals, and carrion. While they prefer to avoid humans, black bears will become habituated to human sources of food. Conflicts often arise when bears wander into developed areas and raid trash, gardens, orchards, and campsites. However, black bear attacks on humans are rare compared to some other bear species.

Some key facts about typical black bear behavior include:

  • Black bears are generally shy, timid creatures that avoid confrontation.
  • They usually flee from approaching humans by running up trees or retreating into forest cover.
  • Black bears maintain home ranges but are not territorial like some other bear species.
  • They are most active from dawn to dusk but may be seen at night, especially when food sources are readily available.
  • Mother black bears are very protective of their cubs and may attack if they perceive a threat.
  • Bears that become conditioned to human food sources often become bolder and more aggressive in attempts to obtain an easy meal.

Understanding these tendencies of black bear behavior provides context for how to respond cautiously in an encounter.

What should you not do if you encounter a black bear?

While every bear encounter is unique, there are certain actions that almost always make a bad situation worse. Here are some key things you should NOT do if you meet a black bear in the wild:

Do Not Run Away

Bears can run up to 35 mph, much faster than any human. Running triggers their instinct to chase. Standing your ground or backing away slowly are much better options.

Do Not Scream or Make Loud Noises

Screaming or yelling may startle a bear and provoke an attack. Staying calm and quiet is safer. The exception is if a bear is attacking; making loud noises and trying to appear threatening may cause the bear to disengage.

Do Not Make Direct Eye Contact

Staring directly at a black bear can be seen as aggressive or challenging behavior, provoking an attack. Avoid looking the bear directly in the eyes.

Do Not Approach or Surprise a Bear

Bears will usually avoid humans if they hear and smell them coming. Approaching too closely, moving in for photos, or sneaking up on a bear removes their chance to retreat. Give any bear adequate space.

Do Not Offer Food to a Bear

Feeding bears trains them to associate humans with an easy food source. It removes their fear and sets the stage for aggressive encounters. Never intentionally feed black bears.

How should you respond if you encounter a black bear?

While avoiding the above poor choices, here are some tips for smart actions if you meet a black bear in the wild:

  • Stay calm and don’t run or make loud noises.
  • Give the bear plenty of room and slowly back away diagonally.
  • Avoid direct eye contact but keep the bear within sight.
  • Raise arms and jacket to look larger if the bear seems curious or approaches.
  • Speak in a firm, authoritative voice to show you are not prey.
  • Continue backing away but be ready to stand your ground if the bear follows.
  • Fight back aggressively with anything at hand if attacked as a last resort.
  • Report any aggressive bears to authorities so they can monitor that animal.

Acting submissively but also asserting dominance by appearing confident and large can often resolve a close bear encounter peacefully. But proper bear safety also means taking preventive measures: hiking in groups, keeping food contained, respecting closures, and making noise in bear country. Understanding bear warning signs like paw prints, scratched trees, and scat can also help avoid surprise encounters.

Are black bear attacks common?

Bear attacks are rare compared to the thousands of peaceful human-bear interactions that occur each year across North America. But attacks do happen, so being aware and informed is important. Here are some quick statistics:

  • Fatal black bear attacks on humans average around 0.5 per year across North America.
  • From 1900-2009, 63 people were killed in 59 incidents in Canada and the U.S.
  • Injuries from black bear attacks average around 1 per year.
  • Most attacks involve male bears, mothers with cubs, or bears that became food-conditioned.
  • Bear spray has proven highly effective when properly deployed during an attack.

These numbers show that deaths and injuries from black bears are quite rare compared to the estimated 640,000-850,000 black bears across North America. But they also demonstrate that attacks do occur and preparedness is warranted in bear country.

Are particular precautions needed around black bear mothers and cubs?

Yes, extra precautions should be taken when a mother black bear is with her cubs. Here are some key considerations when giving them plenty of space:

  • Mother black bears are very protective and will aggressively guard cubs from perceived danger.
  • Cubs are generally born in January or February while the mother is hibernating.
  • Mothers emerge from dens in April or May, allowing 8-17 weeks for cub development before separating.
  • Cubs usually stay with their very protective mother through their first summer.
  • Mothers may false charge and ‘bluff charge’ to scare away threats to cubs.
  • Give mothers with cubs plenty of room. Slowly leave the area if they appear agitated or aggressive.
  • Avoid hiking near dens or areas with cub sign like small tracks.

Mother black bears deserve special consideration and caution, as they are just trying to safely raise their vulnerable young. But they will attack humans if they feel cubs are endangered.

Are particular precautions needed around food-conditioned bears?

Yes, black bears that have become habituated to human food sources can be dangerous and require additional precautions:

  • Bears that obtain human food and garbage may become emboldened and aggressive.
  • They associate human scents and sounds with potential food rewards.
  • Food-conditioned bears actively seek human contact and may approach vehicles, homes, and people.
  • They often lose their natural wariness and may charge or attack to get food.
  • Teach bears to avoid human contact by properly containing food and trash.
  • Report food-conditioned bear behavior to authorities immediately.
  • Never leave pet food, coolers, trash, or other attractants accessible.
  • Carefully clean campsites and picnic areas to minimize smells.

Preventing access to human food is the best way to keep bears wild and reduce the dangers of food conditioning. Aggressive bears usually must be killed once they lose fear – an outcome no one wants.

What should you do if a black bear charges?

Bear charges are usually bluffs – bears act aggressive to test if you will retreat. But know what to do in case of a real charge:

  • Stand your ground – Don’t run! Running triggers chase instinct.
  • Shout aggressively – Show you are not easy prey.
  • Make yourself look big – Wave arms, jacket, backpack.
  • Throw sticks or rocks – Make the bear reconsider approaching.
  • Have bear spray ready – Know how to quickly deploy if charge gets close.
  • As a last resort, fight back – Kick, punch, hit the bear with anything.
  • Curl in a ball or lie face down – Protect head and neck if knocked down.

But again, most charges are defensive threats and the bear will veer off at the last moment. Hold your ground but be ready to deploy stronger deterrents if needed.

Are bear bells and bear spray good deterrents?

Yes, bear bells and bear spray are both smart precautions to carry and understand while in bear country:

Bear Bells

  • The jingling sound lets bears hear hikers coming from a distance.
  • Bears usually retreat from approaching humans when they hear warning sounds.
  • Attach bells to shoes, backpacks, or hiking poles.
  • Effectiveness is variable. Loud talking and clapping are also good sound deterrents.

Bear Spray

  • Pepper spray formulated to stop charging or attacking bears.
  • Works by irritating eyes and nasal passages upon direct contact.
  • Should be readily accessible with safety on/off while hiking.
  • Effective deterrent in about 92% of bear attacks based on studies.
  • Must be used at close range aiming at face for best results.

Both bells and spray provide added precautions against surprise encounters. But smart food storage and bear safety knowledge are still essential.


Encountering one of North America’s magnificent black bears in the wild can be an awe-inspiring experience. But such meetings require caution and care on the human’s part to minimize any risks and keep both the person and bear safe. Avoiding sudden moves, loud noises, and actions that could be seen as aggressive or challenging is key. Remaining calm, leaving ample space, backing away diagonally, and asserting dominance by appearing confident and large are often effective responses. But properly containing food sources, respecting bear behaviors, and understanding deterrents like spray are equally vital preventative measures for avoiding conflict. While serious attacks are rare, smart precautions give both people and bears the space and reverence they deserve.