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