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.