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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.'

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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

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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:

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.

—BEAR

Got a question for the bear? Send it to askabear@backpacker.com.