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.
Photo: American black bear courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
I’d be quite a bit more concerned about a single gun-toting hiker with an itchy trigger finger than a black bear especially since I’m usually wandering around off-trail. I’ve encountered quite a few large and small bears. Given a choice between me (standing mere feet away) or a hasty retreat, they’ve always opted for the hasty retreat. Keep the guns at home unless you’re hunting in season with a license.
Where did you see these bears, and under what circumstances? I cannot think of one instance where I saw one while off-trail, and only one or two while hiking trails.
I saw a couple of people with firearms in the backcountry because of a fear of bears (or so they claimed). In my opinion, it is overkill, since firearms will probably never be used.
Great article Dan, and thank you for following up your previous post with this one.
Sensational, anecdotal stories typically dominate discussions about bears, so it is important – for bears and for humans – to get accurate information out there for people to read.
The article is informative, yes, but nonetheless does omit consideration of some important issues:
We acknowledge that the risk of some airplane/train/cruiseship disaster is remote, we nonetheless impose on society considerable constraints/regulations/rules/laws etc because of the simple fact that although an unfortanate event might be rare, the equation for ‘risk’ must also include consideration of just what are the totality of consequences for any such rare event. This is why our airplane industry must function with tremendous and expensive attention to safety. Crashes are rare, but the cost of each can be monumental.
So it is with this issue. A bad ‘bear-human’ confrontation will rarely end in to the benefit of the person. Therefore, risk assessment must consider the extent to which prevention/defense must be advised.
As a retired Anesthesiologist in a field famous for ‘risk benefit’ thinking, I must suggest that because death of the human is likely, there really must be thoughtful consideeratiof of appropriate measures. Top priority might be given the simple act of ‘avoidance’ .. Bears live in ‘bear country’, by and large, and ‘bear country’ is not ‘human settlement country’, by and large..
Entering the territory of Bruno does not entail zero risk of death, much the same as when scuba divers enter the risks inherent in being in sharks’ domain.
Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that certain defense measures might decrease risks of human mortality due to bears, but possibly increase significantly the risk of human life lost as a consequence of of the use of the proposed defensive method: tons of hikers carrying ballistic weapons is not the safest of worlds!
Because of these minimally-addrssed issues Im forced to gie the article a ‘C’-grade .. “Informative, relatively accurate, but incomplete and possibly misleading in its conclusions.
“by and large, and ‘bear country’ is not ‘human settlement country’, by and large..”
That is completely inaccurate. You seem to not have a grasp on our black bear population at all.
It would be instructive for the author to have also researched and talked about black bear attacks in Canada – a whole different story. There, black bears have been aggressive towards humans in a predatory way, with some fatal encounters. They seem to not have been conditioned to avoid humans like they have here in the much more (relatively so) densely populated northeast, and that may be a possible explanation. One simple but plausible explanation is simply this: We look like we’re tasty.
The article I linked to discussed that the majority of fatal attacks occurred in Canada and Alaska. The reason I didn’t mention this was because I chose to focus on the Adirondacks, due to the theme of the Almanack.
I probably should have at least mentioned this fact somewhere in the article.
You’re right, Dan – I wrote that before reading the previous article which you wrote (linked here), about the camper in Canada who was attacked by a bear while using the outhouse. That’s just more evidence that the bears in Ontario have a completely different outlook on homo sapiens than their American cousins.
Didn’t a camper shoot and kill a bear at Marcy Dam or Lake Colden 5-10 years ago he said was trying to get in his tent (out of season)?
I think it was an off-duty state trooper that killed a bear because it was threatening his girlfriend. At least, that is the story I remember. I suspect the bear was probably only bluffing, but this is the type of situation where carrying a firearm can lead to an unnecessary death for a bear.
but can you define ‘unnecessary death’ ??
Yes, a bear poking his nose in your tent *might* be a benign event but how do you communicate to the bear that concept?
Best to stay out of bear country …
As I understand it the bear was going into a lean-to and towards his daughter. Unnecessary? Would prefer to shoo away a bear and only the ones I have seen in places like the High Peaks seem to act this way but in that situation I imagine he was glad he had a gun and didn’t have to just see what happened to the girl.
Someone I know was charged for killing a bear out of season that was breaking into his porch (several times). I wonder why this trooper was not charged?
Black bears could be better described as opportunists. They take advantage of whatever food resource they can find. They are very efficient hunters. A little known fact is white tail fawns are very vulnerable to a balck bears unsurpassed nose. Also full size deer can sometimes make a meal for them. I know of an instance in the Pharaoh Lake wilderness, where a hunter tracked a deer in the snow to its bed, only to find a bloody mess. Apparently a bear stalked, and attacked the unsuspecting spike horn. This was confirmed by the hunter as he continued to track the bear, only to find the partially eaten and buried buck. I have lived and hunted and fished this area my whole life. It is local common knowledge that camping and hiking in this area without a firearm, if you are going solo, is not wise. A group of noisy campers is better, however no guarantee. I personally have had one in my camp in Springhill pond. I have also arrived home at night to find bears clawing to get on my porch to get at garbage. A neighbor of mine shot one as it was in his pig pen eating the slop. It weighed 400 hundred pounds. I could go on and on with other instances, however I will leave it at that. Choose to carry a gun, or pepper spray, if you hike or camp this area. I have already made my mind up. If it is only me, I will have a gun. Better to be safe than sorry.
” It is local common knowledge that camping and hiking in this area without a firearm, if you are going solo, is not wise.”
Really? What “local” area do you come from where that is “common knowledge”? To think that I have been risking my life over the past 45 years of solo hiking and camping and bushwacking by not packing heat – phew! Who knew I was taking such chances with my life….
BTW, if your comment about your neighbor is true, he could be in deep doo-doo with DEC for shooting a bear out of season. First of all, he wasn’t apparently in personal danger from this bear; secondly, your ignorant neighbor should know better than to put out “pig slop” in an area where bears are known to be active. Simply because the bear was opportuniscally eating the slop is not sufficient legal justification to shooting the bear. I bet that didn’t get reported to DEC, did it?
Unfortunately, the data in the paper I linked to in my article does not support your assertions regarding the dangerousness of black bears, at least not as far as fatal attacks are concerned. This doesn’t mean black bear attacks don’t happen, but cases of them doing so appear to be quite rare. Of course, it is your right to carry a gun if you want to, but there are few facts backing up your concern.
If you are afraid of black bears, stay out of the woods.
Speaking of bears in the Adirondacks, the recent reports from down Albany way about bears in trees being tranquilized to move them out of town and the DEC policy of three strikes and the bears are killed, got me to thinking of how the bears in the Adirondacks and Catskills should retaliate by tranquilizing humans from the Albany area when they are found in the woods, dragging them back to the Albany area and then killing them if they show up for a third time.
Mr. Close, your comments betray your ignorance for the law that says, when a bear threatens your livestock you have every right to blast the beast to kingdom come. Too bad if you don’t like it. My neighbor had every right to raise livestock on his land, not yours. The bear was in the sty with the pigs. The pigs constant loud squealing alerted him to a major problem that was solved very easily, and it only cost him about .75 cents for the shell. No paper work, no courts. Lots of pork and bear. If you choose to be feckless and cavalier about your life, and throw caution to the wind, that’s your right. My experience with bears dictates to me to use caution. That is my right. I will exercise it when I feel the situation warrants it.
I’ve been hiking and camping in the Adirondacks for over 30 years. I’ve seen black bears frequently especially in the Raquette Lake/Long Lake areas. In fact, one morning I woke up to the curious stare of one not three feet from my sleeping bag. I slowly stood up, still in my bag, he took one look and sauntered off. I’ve also seen them on the trail and simple look around to see if there are any cubs between me and mama, and if not, I watch them walk off.
In my experience the two most dangerous things on the trail are, unleashed dogs and cowardly men with handguns.
If you feel as if you must carry a handgun with you, my suggestion is that you go to Gotham and stay under wraps.
The woods is no place for sissies.
It is also no place for idiots. Maybe you could ask some of the mauling victims what it was like. The article did say people have been killed. The stupidity of some people is breathtaking. Yes most encounters do end with the bear running away, however larger bears do not always yield ground easily. And if attacked by a large black bear, you had better fight for your life, because it may actually depend on it. I am not trying to convey that the woods are actually overrun with merauding black bears. I am only reaffirming the crux of this story. There are to many people that think like the man in Alaska that actually thought he could live among the grizzlies, only to find out what a tragic miscalculation he and his girlfriend made. He stayed way past the end of the salmon run. The bears looking for more food promptly decided he and his girlfriend would make a great meal. The rest is history. There was a great documentary on PBS about black bear attacks in Algonquin Park of Ontario. The bear biologist who headed the study had some very interesting facts. I encourage people to watch it.
For all the people that think black bears are just like teddy bears…. Stupidity will be painful!
Interesting topic. I’m going to write about it next Saturday in my Dispatch, I was planning to soon anyhow. Thanks Dan.
One comment: a gun does not make you safe from a bear – knowledge and common sense does. It is well known that if you don’t shoot a bear in the right place a bullet will not stop him, so you had better know what you are doing if it comes to that. Which it shouldn’t.
The gun itself is not a marker of either safety or idiocy. You can have an imbecile armed to the teeth or you can have a thoughtful, savvy hunter with a weapon and knowledge how to handle himself in the woods. The gun is the wrong debate.
The issue is a combination of proper attitude toward bears (they’re wildlife to be respected but not feared, Moose are much more dangerous for example) and proper attitude around bears when you have an encounter (be calm,stand your ground,generate noise and allow the bear to do what he/she wants to do, which is either to saunter away or eat your food, or both).
Thank you for this reply. First both sides common sense responseI have read. I would much rather have a gun I will never need, than need a gun I do not have. However the debate should not be over a firearm. It should be over the person who has or has not. And to each his own. And the “itchy trigger finger” comment….Really? Not every firearm owner is an irresponsible, feeble wreck as you apear to believe. I will carry as I always do. God created man. Colt made them equal. Same goes for man and a 300lb hungry or threatened bear. As an avid outdoorsman I can say with certainty I will exhaust every possible effort pro active and reactive before turning to a weapon.
Excellent article, and comments, too. Also informative:if someone had asked me before, I would have said there had been one or two fatal attacks in the Adirondacks. Still would have meant little to fear.
Pete, thats a good summary. I’m sure some people think I advocate a scorched earth policy towards bears. This is just not true. I am certainly not scared of them, however, I do respect the fact that these are wild animals and should be treated as such. They command respect. I will caution people not to fall for the phallacy that just because an event happens 50 times with a certain favorable result that the 51st time it happens it will have the same outcome. Most of my encounters were merely observing bears in their natural state as they went about the buisness of being a bear. I have had others that were not as pleasant. One charged downhill at me only to veer off twenty feet away when I raised my rifle. Was it going to attack? Was I merely in its way? Maybe it confused me with prey. The very large bear that kept invading mine and my neighbors property lokking for garbage, which was secured in containers, was very aggressive. The neighbors dog repeatedly tried to run the bear off. Even a warning shot from my rifle would not deter the bear from the garbage. I think the constant harrassment from the dog finally forced the bear off dragging a full bag of garbage in his mouth. I have never personally shot a bear, even though I have had numerous opportunities. This bear had returned four nights in a row, even though the garbage was gone. That spring people were seeing bears of all dfferent sizes in the area. It was very odd that although we knew many bears lived in the area, we questioned why they were hitting up houses when in the past they never bothered. I suspect that maybe that spring, the woods didn’t harbor enough food.
As I said, discussions about bears usually involve sensational, anecdotal stories… and Ti is doing his best to provide just that.
We can add another adjective to his participation in this conversations. Hysteria.
This sentence is absurd and irresponsible: “It is local common knowledge that camping and hiking in this area without a firearm, if you are going solo, is not wise.”
Such a silly notion may be consensus among Ti and his immediate circle of friends… but I assure everyone else reading this that no such “local common knowledge” exists.
Ti offers a lot of “common knowledge” with no basis in fact.
If you can not accept the facts, thats your problem, not mine. Also the sesationalists are people like you dave that refuse to aknowledge the experiences of people who have lived here thier entire lives. These are people who spend many days afield hunting and fishing, and hiking. I am sorry these stories run contrary to the party line, but they happened. If I was the hysterical type. I would have shot every bear that crossed my path. To date I have shot zero and have no plans to do so in the future. I stick to my convictions, but I also lend creedence to the premise of Dan’s article. It is true, the odds are you will never have a physical encounter with a black bear.
Ti is absolutely correct, and certainly far from alone. Anyone in the wilderness without a firearm is more foolish than informed, in my humble opinion, but that is not the point. The point is that it is my responsibility to provide for my safety and welfare, and that of my family and friends. Like any other tool, a firearm can be used for its intended purpose if needed, like a knife, flashlight, rain gear, etc. Like any other tool, learn how to use it and respect it. One final point, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because you will not be there to help if needed; it is up to me, and I have made a choice. Unfortunately, some folks think they are so smart and constantly whine trying to tell everybody what to do. Makes me like dogs even that much better. Besides bears, maybe we can include coyotes, but then again perhaps not the friendly Adirondack coyotes. I heard moose can be friendly too, like some people. Anyone want to include murder in the Adirondacks, but that would be all too real, and again we can ignore it because it’s more likely we’d get hit by lightning. Like Ti said, we’re not scared. Just prepared. Be prepared.
George Carlin used to begin one of his routines with “You never read about a bear until he bites someone”, a remark which caused hysterical laughter with his audience, but was simply a statement of fact. I’ve seen 40 grizzlies in Alaska amd Canada, and probably 20 black bears in Alaska, Canada and the Adirondacks, most close enough so that attack by the bear was one possible option. I’ve never felt threatened, and in the case of most of the grizzlies, barely noticed. Every black bear I’ve seen in the Adirondacks fled, presumably because of their experiences with hunting. Bears are higher mammals, extremely smart and innovative. The number of bear attacks as a percentage of up close encounters makes an attack by a grizzly, for example, in grizzly country, less likely than a fatal bee sting, daeth by injury while climbing or hiking, etc. While I always carry pepper spray in Alaska and Western Canada, I don’t bother in the Adirondacks. You are much more likely to win the lottery than to be attacked by a bear. All that matters in the se debates are the statistics, which say… Relax, keep a clean camp site and enjoy your experience. If you see a bear, your weapon of choice is the camera. Pepper spray, if worn on the belt, is nearly always a better weapon than a firearm, as there are many incidents in which an armed human was killed by a grizzly they had just shot. If you’ve ever been tear-gassed (or pepper sprayed!), you’ll understand why it’s so effective, as all other points of focus, no matter how high the motive) are swept aside when you’re pepper sprayed. An excellent book on this subject is “Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance”, by Dr. Stephen Herrero, which catalogues and appraises all reported incidents, and provides interesting conclusions, for example, assuming you are without pepper spray or firearm, never resist a grizzly attack, but always fight hard against a black bear attack, as the two attacks propably have different motives. And for Pete’s sake, never run, as the slowest bear ever, is still faster than the fastest human, and running merely arouses the bear’s curiosity, which is not in your best interests.
I have been backpacking in both the Adirondacks and Catskills for 25 years. The only time I encountered a bear was in the Catskills. I was walking on a trail, going up a little hill leading to a stream. As soon as I crested the hill, I was face to face with a bear about 20 feet away. We stared at each other for a few seconds before the bear ran off into the woods.
I also have just returned from Kodiak,Alaska. I worked on a fishing boat there for the past year and had many opportunities to hike. I saw numerous Kodiak brown bears.I have no fear of black bears, but those Kodiak bears will get your heart racing. In Alaska, they highly recommend not going into woods without a firearm.
and now for a joke.
In light of the rising frequency of human/grizzly bear encounters, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is advising hikers, backpackers, hunters, and fishermen to take extra precautions and keep alert for bears.
We advise outdoorsmen to wear noisy little bells on their clothing so that the bears are not startled unexpectedly by a human’s presence. We also advise outdoorsmen to carry pepper spray with them in case of an encounter with a bear.
It is also a good idea to watch for fresh signs of bear activity. Outdoorsmen should recognize the difference between black bear poop and grizzly bear poop. Black bear poop is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop smells like pepper and has little bells in it.
It’s stupid to not be prepared. If you don’t want to be, so be it, but don’t hold it against others who wish to be.
If I were you I’d be less concerned about the dacks becoming a “wild west” and more concerned about steering someone seeking information on this issue away from seeking preparedness.
What would bother you more, someone reading this and doing nothing, as you suggest, and getting attacked and killed; or a few more people carrying revolvers in a wilderness area the size of Massachusetts?
Hello Dan, another great article. Insightful and to the point. I’ve seen quite a few bears and even a whole lot more bear sign in the Five Ponds. I think I just told you recently about my early morning encounter with a bear sticking its nose in my hammock and filling my shirt up with hot bear breath? I woke up and had no illusions about what it was. The slight growl it let out helped also. I woke up and said: “Hey! Come on man, really?” And he lit out. Bears are not interested in fighting people or anything else. They’re just looking for a quick and easy meal. Dunno know about you but I’m always looking for a quick and easy meal. As far as a firearm is concerned, I look at it like this… If you do decide to carry a firearm into the Adirondacks you should only be willing to use it if the bear is on top of you. If you go right to the gun you are essentially accepting the fact that you are an idiot and should have never been in the wilderness in the first place. You journey into their house and then shoot them? That sir is terrible manners. The more you know the less you need. And like you said a gun is heavy. I dont know about you but I’m already heavy enough. Anyway thanks for all your great articles. You’re my favorite Adirondacks corespondent!
My family spends most of the summer in the Adirondacks and I remember one instance where a bear had been around our camp and was rather brasin then one day I was getting wood and I came back to find it in front of our cabin, so I began to yell and make a lot of noise but it didn’t run it stood it’s ground but my dad hear the commotion and fired one bullet in the air and It ran for the hills. My family and I are avid hunters and when in bear country my dad regularly carries his rifle but is nowhere near trigger happy after spending 5 years in the marines he knows how to use and has never used deadly force against a bear but has discharged his rifle to scare off a stubborn bear. I always say better to have and not need then need and not have.