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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Ask A Bear: How Should I Handle MaMa Black Bear With Cubs?

Our resident bruin expert answers all your questions in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

by: BEAR

 Q: I had a question about a close black bear encounter I had, which I think nearly got me mauled from what I know of mother bears and their cubs. I responded aggressively back to her aggression towards me, and she did not charge, and I am wondering if that was the best response, or if I got lucky? Joe Whittle, Oregon

A: Thanks for your question, Joe. Let's take a deeper look at your encounter, which you wrote about in detail on your blog, Winding Light Adventures:
I watched as the large Cinnamon Black Bear turned towards me. Turning to protect her cub that had scrambled up the tree, she began bouncing back and forth on her feet and pawing at the ground in front of her. I heard a deep kind of snorting, and will always remember those shoulders in the dim twilight moving back and forth with powerful intimidation.

Fighting the urge to run, I began yelling and banging my trekking poles together as hard as I could, standing my ground with Kira (my dog) cowering behind me. Maybe it was the confusion of human and dog smell, combined with inherent poor eyesight and falling darkness, but she did not charge. After a moment it became apparent that it was just posturing and fearful bluffing on either end, both of us waiting to see what the other would do. I gently began side stepping down the trail, watching her dark shape for movement in my direction as I disappeared into the woods. Once out of view I wasted no time exiting those woods, although I was much louder in doing so, banging my trekking poles and singing or making loud grunts and noises as I walked.
Basically, Joe, you did the right thing. (Of course, you should have made more noise to alert me while walking down a trail loaded with huckleberries, but I'll let that go for now.) Mother black bears rarely respond like mother grizzlies, which have a strong maternal protection instinct and likely would've attacked you in response to aggressive tactics in such a close encounter.

Instead, black bears typically snort, stamp their feet, and bluff charge in an effort to scare you away—all of which you witnessed—but rarely attack. A return aggressive display on your part, followed by a calm exit, both reinforces a negative association with humans and allows both parties to escape without contact. 

In the extremely rare event that she decided to attack you to defend her cubs, you'd be best off playing dead or passively resisting. Once she determines you're not a threat, she's likely to leave. But again, this occurrence is extremely rare: Bear biologist and my best friend Stephen Herrero notes that this has happened only four times in recorded history among thousands of sudden encounters between humans and female black bears with cubs.


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Hal, New Mexico
Dec 13, 2011

Disregard last thread, thought this was the askabear link

Hal, New Mexico
Dec 13, 2011

In the unlikely event a bear should come into camp in bear country, is (1) a full tent safest where a bear cannot see through, or (2) a large tarp with a space allowing the camper both visibility and a possible escape route opposite an inquisitive bear? Would there be different answers for black bears vs grizzlies?

Aug 04, 2011

Was with a scout group listening to a bear researcher when he mentioned a case of a 13-year-old girl fending off a black bear. The 15-16 year-old boy response -- "Let's go find a black bear. We can take it!". I hope they were just kidding.

Aug 04, 2011

Recently, I had a similar run-in on the AT in the SNP near Browns Gap. See:

Jul 24, 2011

I was charged very recently by a mother black bear with cubs; the charge ended very close to my daughter and I (between 10-15 feet) and we were really far from her cubs when we spotted them.

As someone above mentioned, I read that playing dead with a black bear isn't the best tactic, but I would hope one's pack would take the majority of abuse.

Regardless, I know it is tried and true that aggression usually works against a black bear and have used that method (well, 'ooh look how big/loud/scary I am') and it worked, even when I the bear came close enough where I could tell you she had tartar build up on her teeth ;)

Jim in Idaho
Jul 17, 2011

Don't underestimate the black bear. There may be only "only four times in recorded history among thousands of sudden encounters between humans and female black bears with cubs" but many more just random attacks on humans by black bears w/o cubs.

I was rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon 15 years ago when a black bear attacked me in my sleep. I fought back and was able to escape with a big bite in my leg, but later found out that I was the second human attacked that week. It was a young male and the IF&G had to remove it.

Everything that I have read since says to be passive with a grizzly, but fight back against a black bear. If the black bear actually attacks, its goal is to kill you, not warn you.

Art Martinez
Jul 17, 2011

Closest I ever got to a bear was when I was in my sleeping bag sans a tent. It sniffed my face trying to figure me out. This was about 5am, so I heard it and immediately rose out of my bag trying to make me "bigger" than the bear. (I wear light top & thermals just for quick egress reasons like this). Fortunately, it was an adolescent and not very big and did run away as I made the requisite commotion and it kept looking back to try and figure out what it has just woken.

I chased it up the hills until I was convinced that it wasn't gonna get anything useful from me or my buddies. We found out later from talking to other campers this bear was checking out everyone in the area (Kearsarge Lakes) because some other campers nearby had "fed it".

If ever I had a feeling of "slimming someone's familial gene pool", it was for those idiots that had done that.

DON'T EVER FEED BEARS OR LET THEM GET YOUR FOOD. This is what happens when you do!!! And will eventually get them killed. You visit their home, then you get them killed - how considerate is that?

Lyn G
Jul 16, 2011

I ran into a black bear with a cub in Yosemite a few years ago. I believe we saw them before they saw us. We started talking and making noise, they saw us and went off the trail, up and around us. Later that day a ranger told us those two were responsible for raiding camps.

Randolph Gray
Jul 16, 2011

Good article. I have only had four black bear and one grizzly encounters in 50 or so years of hiking. luckily, in all cases we both decided to peacefully go our own way.

Bear lover
Jul 15, 2011

I ran into a mother black bear and her two cubs in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. We were in close proximity w/ the cubs on the trail in front of us. It surprised us as much as did the mother. My friend and I raised our hands and spoke in an even voice while backing away up the trail in the opposite direction of the cubs. The mother watched us patiently as we backed away. She showed no aggression. The cubs caught up w/ mom and they went off into the brush. We waited a few minutes and then proceeded back down the trail while making more noise. I realize we were lucky that she was more tolerant of our presence.

I've only ever heard of fighting back against a mountain lion and would most likely not fight back against a black bear. I've had many encounters w/ black bears all over this country from Shenandoah to Alaska and in my experience, they've never been aggressive.

My advice is never, never run. Don't climb trees. Make noise and move away from the bear in a calm and easy manner. If the bear charges, it will most likely be a bluff charge. Stand your ground unless the bear is within a few yards, then drop face-down to the ground, place your arms behind your neck and head. Do not move. That will increase your chances of exiting the encounter safely should you actually be attacked by a black or even a grizzly bear.

Jul 15, 2011

Jul 15, 2011

"In the extremely rare event that she decided to attack you to defend her cubs, you'd be best off playing dead or passively resisting."

I have read Stephen Herrero's book and playing dead is the best tactic with grizzlies....NOT black bears. One should fight back in the case of a non-habituated black bear attack. Herrero even stated cases where young children have been known to intimidate a black bear during an encounter by fighting back and other cases where (black bear) sows have been know to walk away from cubs when threatened. Does our resident bear know something Herrero missed? Or do I need to re-read his book?

Connie Post
May 14, 2011

I live in NE Ga--I have a mother black bear with 2 cubs living across the street from my cabin. My dog is treeing these cubs every time I let him out--4 days now, will she eventually get fed up with him & attack?? I keep him in almost all the time.. what to do???


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