Living With Bears

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Having lived here on the side of a mountain which others have unofficially named “Bear Mountain” we have had our close encounters with black bears over the years.  In fact we have had many encounters. Some would call us lucky but we prefer to think of it as being cautious and aware of bear behavior and respecting them and their space.  We do nothing to draw them in but just being outside as much as we are is bound to provide frequent encounters.  

I’m sure my observations may not fully track with wildlife biologists but these reflect what I have observed personally. I have been within a few feet of a bear and never felt in danger.  They say don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs and I would agree with that.  A couple years ago however a mother raised her two cubs at our home and we encountered them several times and she was never once annoyed by our presence. She initiated the contact – not us. I was walking our German Shepherd and she and her two cubs came up from a ditch 20 feet away and we conversed for 15-20 minutes as we watched her utilize us to train her cubs. She did the same thing when we were in our fenced in back yard.  She had been trained by her mother at our house and she was doing the same thing.  Animals seem to instinctively know they are safe here and behave differently than they might under different circumstances.  

We have noted that bears are somewhat territorial.  We have watched them mark a tree (as in the photo) and then urinate on the ground below it to mark their territory.  They are generous with their territory as they have marked a large perimeter around our house.  When we do encounter one we watch for any sign that they may be upset.  Shifting from foot to foot, lowering their head or swinging it side to side is clearly not a good sign.  We usually give them more space by slowly backing up when they show any indication of being nervous.  Sometimes they will just sit down and watch us out of curiosity until they decide if we pose a threat or not.  

We have seen them grab a large rock with one paw and lift it easily. I lift weights and stay fit and couldn’t budge the same rocks with a pry bar.  They are incredibly strong but of all the many encounters we have had over the years only two showed any aggression. We can tell  when they have been around our house even though we may not see them.  Rotten logs ripped apart, large rocks turned over, fresh bear scat and tracks in the dirt all reveal their presence.  Bears seem to have their own set of rules and when you learn those rules you can live in harmony with reduced chance of an adverse incident.  

Bears are incredibly interesting animals and once you learn to live peacefully with them the better off the relationship will be.  Don’t push the limits, let them get close enough to sniff you and make sure you are friendly.  Don’t make threatening moves and most of all don’t jump around yelling “bear, bear.”  Their natural curiosity and poor eyesight may bring them close to you so they can identify if you are a threat but if you stay calm they will usually just amble off. If they believe that you are invading their safe space, they may false charge you – a clear indication you need to slowly back off as soon as possible.   Don’t let their slow lumbering pace fool you.  They can be very fast when they want to be. It is best that you don’t have food in your pocket or hand during any encounters.  It is always good to be vigilant and cautious when around bear and DON’T ever feed them.  I have known others to do so and it just hastens the ultimate demise of  a beautiful wild creature.  I knew one woman who virtually raised a bear and it would follow her around like a pet.  It was her protector and when her husband came into the yard it would push him down to keep him away from her. Please don’t make them friendly to humans — you are only hurting the bear.  If they choose to explore and sniff you that is different but don’t encourage them — especially with food. 

Living with bears would scare most people but if you stay calm, exercise caution, and don’t make any threatening moves or crowd them you should walk away from any chance encounter without much risk.  Know the warning signs to watch for and stay calm.  They can sense your fear and can react to that fear.  I admit when you are close to them keeping yourself calm can be daunting but you must do it or suffer the consequences. We have had hundreds of encounters and each bear is different, so be vigilant.  You never know when you will encounter that one aggressive bear out of a hundred, so caution is key.  If you happen to see them first don’t push your luck, just slowly back off and let them be.  Don’t avoid living like we do from fear of bears.  Learn to live with them and your rewards will be enormous. Those are my experiences and I personally love to live with the bears and other wild animals.       

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