Saturday, November 19, 2016

Black Bears Attack, Or Do They?

My recent article here at the Adirondack Almanack about a man attacked on the toilet by a black bear appeared to elicit several comments suggesting that carrying firearms is a viable protective measure for possible bear attacks in the Adirondacks. It was never my intention to insinuate this; I just thought it was an amusing backcountry-related story.

Before I find myself liable for any incidents involving bears and firearms, it may be instructive to examine black bear behavior and the possibility of suffering from a fatal attack in the Adirondacks. I certainly do not want to be responsible for the backcountry becoming a new “wild west,” with everyone packing heat, and eager to use it at a moment’s notice.

Black bears are the second largest mammal in the Adirondacks, the first being moose. The average male bear weighs about 300 pounds, with females averaging 170 pounds. Black bears are omnivorous, eating herbaceous vegetation, nuts, berries, roots, grubs, insects, carrion, and when lucky enough to encounter a careless backpacker, some very tasty and high-calorie processed food.

Black bears are curious, intelligent and they learn from experience, as do some people. If bears frequently obtain food from humans, they can quickly become overly aggressive and demanding toward people, just like New York City residents.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, there are six to seven thousand bears in New York State, with about 70 percent of those present in the Adirondacks. Despite the numbers, encountering bears outside the eastern High Peaks Wilderness is a rare and exciting event, typically concluding with the bear hastily retreating upon recognizing the human voyeur’s presence.

In my experience, I can only recall a couple bear encounters in the Adirondack backcountry outside of the High Peaks Wilderness. These exceptional encounters in less trammeled areas is probably due to the lack of people, the noise and the pungent stench produced while traveling through remote and arduous terrain.

Most bear/human conflicts are not bear problems at all, but human problems. Most of these conflicts revolve around food, as conflicts in life frequently do. Specifically, the conflicts are due to the lack of proper food storage or care.

In areas with either dense bear or people populations, the best way to store food is within a bear canister. These canisters are now mandatory in the eastern portion of the High Peaks Wilderness. In most other backcountry areas, properly hang all food to make it as difficult as possible for bears, or any other critters, to obtain. In addition, perform special care during food preparation, especially in areas where bears are prevalent. Never leave food unattended, even for a brief period, or there is a risk it may be lost.

With the chances of encountering a black bear in the Adirondack backcountry being remote, the likelihood of a violent confrontation is extremely low; it is probably more likely to be struck by lightning, run over by a bus, or die on the toilet while practicing the Valsalva maneuver. Although a fatal encounter with a black bear is low, it is not zero.

A research paper examined fatal attacks by American black bear on people during the 1900-2009. Only 59 fatal incidents occurred during this period, with a single instance occurring in New York State. The single New York occurrence is most likely an incident where a black bear killed a baby in Fallsburg; apparently, there are no recorded fatalities from the Adirondacks.

Despite the common knowledge that female bears with cubs are the most dangerous, lone males were most frequently involved in fatal attacks, just like violent behavior in people. The vast majority of the fatal attacks occurred on parties of one or two people (gulp), which should leave solo adventurers slightly apprehensive the next time they head out into the backcountry.

Most of the black bears involved in these fatal attacks acted as a predator; including evidence of stalking, full out attacks using claws and teeth, consuming human flesh and possessive behavior towards the bodies. Not many people’s idea of an interesting backcountry adventure.

It is easy to mistake bear defensive behavior as aggression. Bears often swat the ground with their paws, charge but stop short of contact, slow and deliberate approaches, and clacking teeth when they feel threatened. In addition, huffing, growling, snorting and other sounds are present. These behaviors rarely lead to any physical conflict, but are often mistaken for aggression, and a sign of imminent attack. Typically, if given an opportunity to withdraw, the bear eagerly does so.

Given the low probability of encountering an aggressive bear, is it worthwhile to bring some defensive measures, such as firearms or pepper spray, into the Adirondack backcountry? From a simple cost/benefit analysis, neither of these items makes the cut for backcountry exploring since the chance of using them for their intended purpose is extremely low.

For those suffering from arctophobia, a can of pepper spray is the preferable method of dealing with hostile bears. It is non-lethal, so if there is an over-reaction to a bear’s defensive behavior, the bruin is relatively no worse for wear (except for needing a hefty amount of Visine). Moreover, a small can of pepper spray weights much less than a firearm, so in a lifetime of not using it, it amounts to a much less of a weight burden. Just make sure to note the direction of the wind before spraying, if possible.

Regardless of the type of defensive measure, it must be carried on one’s person at all times otherwise there is little point of carrying it. Stalking and stealth characterize bear predatory behavior, so do not expect the bruin to announce its intentions and allow time to retrieve the weapon from the tent during a late night pee run.

Fatal attacks from black bears are extremely rare, with no recorded incidents within the Adirondacks. Given this fact, carrying some type of defensive measures, such as a firearm or can of pepper spray, is excessive, and unnecessary. Instead of worrying about a bear attack, enjoy the Adirondack backcountry and count yourself lucky to see a black bear. However, when using the outhouse, maybe it is best if the door is left closed. Just in case.

This post was first published in the Adirondack Almanack in June 2012. Read more stories about Black Bears in the Adirondacks in the Almanack archives.

Photo: American black bear courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




23 Responses

  1. George L. says:

    What is the Canadian’s experience with/approach to black bears?

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    “just like New York City residents.”

    Dan, i detect a little prejudice here. 🙂

    Statistically NYC folks are just as friendly and no more aggressive then their country counterparts.
    Just sayin’.

    • J.L. Wilson says:

      Paranoia strikes deep…. (Buffalo Springfield lyric, lest you were born before, say, 1980). Anyway, I think you didn’t quite get the gist of Dan’s analogy here. I took it to mean that folks (predominantly from urban areas) getting a free ride with food stamps and “entitlements”, seem to be the more aggressive of our species and expect for the goods to keep coming. Those who get “things” without putting in the effort, often tend to feel that it is their right to do things the easy way. As bears who get free food easily. But, I may be wrong. You may be right. Kind of like reading and defining the meaning of poetry. Different people interpret differently. Now this observation I have just made, in itself, could be construed as to be prejudicial, as well, I suppose. These are the problems we have created with all the mass media where humans seldom communicate with each other in person anymore, get to actually discuss issues, feelings and thoughts and observe body language and mood of delivery, which often results in learning new ideas and conflict resolution, or perhaps acceptance and understanding that differences can exist between equally good people. It’s easy to just shoot someone or start making assumptions on misperceptions and then spreading rumors about each other that may actually have a faulty basis in reality. We’ve lost our ability to think, communicate, research and verify sources, accept or understand that differences don’t necessarily mean right or wrong, etc. As in the ’50 when people would say, “It must be true because I read it in the Reader’s Digest”, people now think that everything they see on the Internet must at least have some basis in truth. Okay, I’m done. Sorry. Me thinks I think too much. 😄

      • Bob Meyer says:

        JL,
        i mostly agree with you about the erosion of real communication and dialogue.. Reader’s Digest aside… i think the entitlement thing being more urban is not accurate. just look at the statistics for the Adirondacks [Hamilton Co. for example, the “most” Adirondack of counties].
        as for your “thinking to much”… it’s good. keep it up. we need your thoughtfulness as well as others.. outside of the internet. 🙂

        • J.L. Wilson says:

          Thanks, Bob. I understand about the Hamilton County comment. I live in Oswego County which is the poorest ranked county in CNY per capita and ranks 53rd compared to Hamilton’s ranking of 12th. I know about entitlement persons up close and neighborly, as it were. I just think that perhaps our biggest urban area (NYC) was mentioned in the comment due to its size and number of inhabitants. For instance Bronx County is listed at number 62 as the poorest county in the state and they have over ten times as many inhabitants as does Oswego County, so it makes them per capita to appear far more reliant or accessible to entitlements than do those in other areas, even those as impoverished as Oswego County. Again, I tend to overthink things, but I’m just sayin’….

  3. J.L. Wilson says:

    I enjoy your sarcasm, humor and erudition. And lest we should forget your integrity for realizing the need to quash the hysteria and mortal potential of humans, primarily males with insufficient sex organs and the need to overcompensate for their deficiencies. 😄

  4. Boreas says:

    Overall, a good article, but I it leaves out the statistics about being mauled by a bear. A thorough mauling can ruin a person’s day as well….

  5. Scott says:

    I have seen more black bears in other than the High Peaks Wilderness than in the HPWA, and so far I have seen the most bears in Franklin County and Herkimer County.

  6. I love this line “Black bears are curious, intelligent and they learn from experience, as do some people.” 🙂
    FWIW I hike mainly in the High Peaks area and have been a lean-to adopter in the High Peaks for 25 of the last 27 years (a two year break after the 11th year). In all the years I’ve been hiking there I have seen a grand total of three bears, a mother and cub on one occasion and a lone bear on another. All three were crossing the road in front of me as I was driving on the highway. I’ve yet to see a bear in the woods. Nervous people carrying guns in the woods frighten me more than bears. They are more unpredictable.

  7. Justin Farrell says:

    “However, when using the outhouse, maybe it is best if the door is left closed. Just in case.”

    I’d definitely be more afraid to use an Adirondack outhouse with the door closed than being attacked by an Adirondack black bear lol.

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    OMG…firearms….heaven forbid! Guess a Neanderthal, such as I must be out of vogue with the Almanac frequent flyers. Yeah I carry a firearm and bear spray and I’ve been hiking, paddling, hunting, fishing in the ADK’s for at least 50 of my 70 years on this planet. I’ve had my share of bear situations, both female and probably male and never thought to use anything other than common sense and my wits.

    Never occurred to me as bear protection, which I feel the spray is better at anyway….I carry it for protection against other folks who would do a lone elderly man harm! Guessing you wouldn’t agree with that and I could care less….don’t carry one yourself.

    I would add one more well-documented fact and that is that of all three bear species on this continent, the black bear is responsible for more fatal attacks on humans that the other two combined. And as your article points out… a high percentage of these attacks were predatory and not defensive in nature. No recorded fatalities in the ADK’s is correct, however…..it was only about two years ago where a man hiking was mauled while protecting his dog that the bear had chased back to him. Then, of course, there was the unfortunate incident in the Catskills Dan referred to (Fallsburg) several years back where a child was grabbed by a black bear out of his outside playpen and carried off to be partially eaten.

    In nearby New Jersey, only about a year ago, a group of young hikers were stalked by a black bear, which ultimately did attack, kill and consume one of them.

    One more thing Dan Crane, the black bear does not only consume meat as “carrion” as evidenced by the fact that they literally compete neck and neck with the coyote for location and consumption of newborn whitetail deer fawns in the Spring! This has been well-documented by NYS DEC and other State Environmental Agencies.

    Simply put….Black Bears are “opportunistic” in their eating habits.

    Black Bears are, indeed, normally wary of humans, however…………

    Thank you

    • Bruce says:

      Lone male black bears were recorded this year in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park stalking at least one individual (a bear researcher who recognized what was happening and managed to safely clear the area) and an attack at night by dragging a boy from his hammock. The father beat off the bear with a big piece of wood. There was no food involved except the sleeping boy.

  9. George says:

    Black bears may have more fatal attacks than Brown (Grizzly) and polar bears but there are over 900,000 black bears in North American compared to maybe 75,000 of the other two (who also live mostly in wilderness or polar environments) so of course there would be more fatal attacks.

    I am a hunter and in grizzly country, though I am carrying a gun, I also carry pepper spray and would use that first for a charging bear. Besides the lethal potential of the gun- and explaining to game officials why you killed a protected species- placement of a bullet to stop a charging bear is no easy feat. Pepper spray covers a large area.

    Outside hunting season in the Adirondacks, I never carried a gun or pepper spray. All the bears I have encountered have fled upon discovering me.

    • J.L. Wilson says:

      I love when people actually use relevant statistics and not just ones they have read somewhere without considering the source and that sources personal objective or prejudiced bent. Thank you for pointing out the disparity of numbers between the species and their normal proximity to humans. 75,000 to 900,000 means that we can have a minimum of twelve confrontations with black bears per every one with a grizzly or a polar bear, but even more than that when you consider that black bears have so much more opportunity to encounter a human invading the bear’s living area. I also agree that we should all carry pepper spray to protect ourselves from strange and aggressive humans. And bears should be allowed access to pepper spray if and when they choose to enter our living areas in case we freak out and try to kill them. Let’s keep everything in perspective. Most humans would think themselves more than justified in dissuading by any means someone/something entering their home or appearing to threaten their children. Hmmmmmm.

  10. Hester McCarthy says:

    Dear Dan,
    One evening last summer I heard the crash of a metal/enamel washtub in the partially open lean-to behind my camp near Long Lake. It seemed like a pretty large crash.
    When I investigated the next morning (rather than in the dark of night), my washtub was on the lean-to floor with bear scratches and dents. I was curious that a bear had squeezed through the door of the lean-to, and through the darkness had thought the upside down washbasin-unused for 11 months-might contain something yummy.
    Best of all for me, the bear apparently scared ITSELF away!

  11. Dan says:

    I remember an article I read in either Outdoor Life or Field & Stream in the 1970s called “Disney Beast or Mankiller” which documented a number of black bear attacks across the U.S. up to that time. I was a young hunter at the time and it gave me the utmost respect of black bears, which I still have.

  12. George L. says:

    I understand that Canadians consider black bears to be more of a threat than do folks in the Adks. This is what I hear from caretakers and rangers in the High Peaks.

    Anyone know enough to comment?

    • Dave says:

      Statistics do show that when human/bear incidents end in a fatality it is more likely to happen in remote areas where bears have not been habituated to humans, such as Alaska and Canada. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if accounts of those attacks are more prevalent in Canadian media and have produced a corresponding level of caution in that population.

      However, it can not be overstated how exceptionally rare fatal black bear encounters are – especially in the Adirondacks. You are far more likely to be killed by bees, or lightning, or a hunter, or a falling tree, or insert any other fun fact here… than you are a black bear. As mentioned in the article, since such records have been kept – at least since 1900 or so, so we are talking 100+ years – there has never been a fatal black bear encounter in the Adirondacks.

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