Black Bear Encounters

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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We have lived full time in the Sangre de Christo mountains for 18+ years full time. During that time, we have had more encounters with black bears than I can count. Our experience has taught us that they are good and respectful neighbors. We read about how they are so dangerous and to be avoided, but our experience has been the opposite.

If our human neighbors were as respectful and considerate as bears, this could be one of the best places ever to live. We do not believe our mountain has an official name, but most call it Bear Mountain. We hear the stories about how aggressive black bears can be, but we have not found that to be true. My comments on black bears do not come from any level of being a professional animal behaviorist but instead from personal experience.

Our Encounters with Bears

We read on social media a cute quip that said “anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; except bears, bears will kill you.” That doesn’t represent what we have observed about bears in our numerous encounters. We actually had a mother bear raise her cubs at our home, and even though we encountered her and her cubs on a regular basis, we had no unfavorable encounters. (See photo.)

She sat down once about 20 feet from us and used the contact to train her cubs. After about 20 minutes, we both parted ways without incident and her cubs were a little smarter. Another time, I opened the door to find a bear standing up at the storm door trying to see into the house. We were about 8 inches apart, nose to nose, and we were both surprised with only a flimsy pane of glass separating us. I closed the door and the bear ambled away. Had I become excited and yelled for the bear to go away, I’m not sure the outcome would have been the same. We have observed that they have poor eyesight and are curious animals.

It seems to me that many problems are human-initiated by people getting excited, moving fast, trying to get too close or by feeding the bears. These are highly intelligent animals that will take advantage of free food when possible. We can tell when a bear has been fed by other people as they will come closer to us and hang around looking for a hand out.

In short, they lose some of their natural caution around people, and when an incident happens, it is usually the bear that suffers the consequences. We had one bear that came to our house and performed various poses and then expected something to eat. It is not hard to see that someone was feeding the bear to get cute photos.

If bears do not perceive a threat, they sometimes will come closer due to their poor eyesight to see what or who you are. Screaming or yelling at the bear is not a good solution. For the most part, bears tend to avoid humans unless enticed into contact. We frequently have them around and are never even aware of their presence. We see tracks on the muddy road, scat or trees they have recently raked with their claws.

Don’t Feed the Bears

We can easily tell the ones that have been fed by humans as they seem to lack that natural fear that the wilder ones demonstrate. When we see skat in the road with undigested dog food, we know they are being fed and those are the ones we are highly cautious around. They are large and very powerful animals, and when they are intent on getting a free meal, they can accidentally injure someone.

I recall one woman who was feeding a bear regularly, and one day when she did not have any food with her, it stood up and put its paws on her shoulders and pushed her down. I have never heard of any game warden or wildlife department ever advocating feeding bears. In fact, they repeatedly warn against it, and still people ignore those warnings and feed bears, usually to the bears detriment. We have lived in close proximity to them for these many years by not feeding them and staying calm and maintaining a safe distance when we encounter them.

Stay Calm and Use Common Sense

We have observed that if you surprise them and they lower their head, shift from foot to foot or snap their jaws you are too close, so just slowly and calmly back away to give them space. You might be more prone to surprise them if you are wearing ear buds and being quiet. We always talk to them calmly and in a normal tone of voice when we come upon them. Once they realize we pose no threat, they usually just walk away and if not, we slowly back away and take a different route.

They have a very keen sense of smell and once they get a whiff of you, they will generally leave before you get to them. It is best to not surprise them in the first place, but when we do, we stay calm and ease a safe distance away. We have had bears walk up almost to us to satisfy their curiosity. It is pretty evident to us when a bear has more than curiosity on their mind and then you need to be prepared.

In the rare instance they close the gap on us, we hold our ground; running is not an option and you may have to stand and fight. If you have bear spray, that is probably a good time to have it handy. We do not carry bear spray as none of the bears we have encountered have been aggressive. Not to say we won’t one time find that one-in-a-hundred aggressive bear, but we’ll deal with that when or if it happens.

Encounters Happen in the Wild

Black bears diet is about 90 percent grass, berries, fruit or nuts. They also eat insects, which is evident when we see a rotten log torn apart or an ant hill dug up. They will also scavenge a carcass if they find one. When we see bear scat, it almost always has berries or seeds in it. We like living with the wild animals and by being sensible and calm, we are able to do so without serious danger.

We have encountered mountain lions unexpectedly and while they are predators, they too will move away given the chance. I can attest to that having suddenly been within 15 feet of one coiled on the ground, hissing with its ears laid back showing its yellow teeth. By staying calm and slowly giving it room, it suddenly bolted away. Animals do not want human encounters any more than we want them but when they happen if handled properly everyone can leave intact. While your instinct tells you to run, that is the absolute wrong thing to do. Staying calm will result in a more favorable outcome.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain experiences go to their blog.

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