Face to Face with a Bear? Here's What to Do

May 24, 2018

You’ve probably heard the saying “never get between a mama bear and her cubs.”

In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about the potential dangers of interacting with a large carnivore and steps or precautions to take to minimize your risks.

While working in the field a couple of springs ago I was approached by a concerned sportsman. He informed me that there was a sow (female) bear with cubs nearby, and was warning folks to stay clear of the area. He wanted to ensure that the animals were not harassed, and he was concerned about human safety. I stayed clear of the bears, finished my work, and left without any injury or complication.

Any wild animal has the ability to inflict harm on humans, black bears included. They may not have the greatest jaw strength of our Northwoods carnivores (half that of a wolf), but bears have strong legs and large clawed paws that could break bones with a single swipe. However, black bear attacks on humans are very rare, and are almost always a result of a bear acting in fear or self-defense. There have been less than 50 deaths reported in North America since 1900 that were the result of a black bear attack.

Bears with cubs tend to avoid humans whenever possible. Typically, when a mother bear senses danger, she signals her cubs to scramble up the nearest tree, and she flees the scene. The cubs can be up the tree for a day or two until she returns for them. This is oftentimes the reason we get a call about a seemingly orphaned bear cub. However, most times the mother returns, calls the cubs down, and leaves with the young ones trailing behind. I have never heard of an incident involving a person threatened by a sow with cubs; most reports of bear vocalizations or bluff charges involved either bears during breeding season, bears near food, or bears that are looking for an easy meal because they were injured by a car strike, a fight with another bear, or having previously been shot and injured with a shotgun or .22. Unfortunately, encounters with bears near homes have seemingly increased, and domestic dogs have been killed when they were let out into their own yard and they took off after a bear.

Remember, if you encounter a bear with or without cubs, a wolf, cougar, pretty much any wild animal, there are some simple guidelines to keep in mind. Do not make the animal feel threatened or cornered; this triggers a defensive mechanism that tells them to fight their way out of the situation. Make certain the animal is aware of your presence. Back up slowly, speaking in a normal tone of voice. Give the animal an escape route. If it begins to act aggressive, you may have to raise your arms, make yourself look as large as possible, and raise your voice to loud talking or yelling. However, most often the animal will take the first escape route it can get. The exception may be if the animal is near a good food source. If you come upon a wolf or cougar on a freshly killed deer, make it clear that you know you need to leave, backing away slowly.

I have been in the field for fifteen years, and have never felt the need to protect myself from wildlife. I have had close calls, but never with bears, wolves and cougars. I always tell people the best defense is to carry a camera, because every time I try to take a photo of one, all I get is a blurry snapshot of the escaping animal’s hind end.

That being said, there have been a couple of serious large carnivore attacks in the news recently, so I do not want to make light of it. a wildlife technician was gravely injured when mauled by a bear in Montana, and she credits using bear spray as helping save her life. In Washington state, two bikers were attacked by a cougar. They did everything they were supposed to do to scare off the cougar, which worked, but unfortunately the animal regrouped and attacked again, injuring one biker and killing the other. Take the proper precautions when heading into the field—a bottle of pepper spray is a low-cost insurance policy, staying alert to your surroundings is always important, and make sure someone knows where you are going and when you plan to return.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.