American black bear, (Ursus americanus)

The American black bear inhabits wooded and mountainous areas throughout most of North America. They grow to about 5 feet long and weigh from 125 to 400 pounds. They have small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, a large body, and a short tail.

The shaggy hair on a bear can vary in color from white blonde through chocolate brown or jet black, but most black bears are indeed black or a darker shade of brown.

Bears are often thought of as hunters, but they're actually scavengers. They eat berries, nuts, grass, carrion, small animals, fish, and whatever else they can get their hands on, especially garbage. Most national parks have to have special bear-proof trash cans because of this.

In the winter, black bears hibernate, surviving off reserves of body fat stored up during the summer and fall. During periods of relatively warm weather, they may awaken and take short excursions outside.

Black bears reach breeding maturity at about 4 or 5 years of age, and breed every 2 to 3 years. Black bears breed in the spring, usually in May and June, but the embryos do not begin to develop until the mother settles down to hibernate. If food was scarce and the mother has not gained enough fat to sustain herself during hibernation as well as produce cubs, the embryos will not develop.

If you meet a black bear in the woods, do NOT run away. It will chase you and it is much faster than you are, I promise. Don't climb a tree. It can climb faster than you, too. Just hold still and it will get bored and leave you alone.

This has been a nodeshell rescue.
Ok, that whole "not running away" thing sounds really great in theory, but here's the thing. It doesn't work. I've seen my share of black bears, and if there's one thing I can say it's that every one is different. Some of them are scared of you. Some really don't care what you do as long as they can keep eating their berries. And some of them want to eat your bags. Very badly. In that case, waiting until they get bored is really not a good plan.

The last bear I saw was about a week ago. I was hiking in Gatineau Park near Ottawa, and as I came over a steep rocky hill I heard a voice behind me say "SARAH! LOOK UP!" Sluggishly, I raised my eyes to find a huge black bear about five feet in front of my face. I froze for a second, not really knowing what to do at this close range, and then decided to do what I had been trained to do at long range. I clapped my hands, waved my arms, and eventually ended up singing "Hey Hey We're The Monkeys!!!" at the top of my lungs (it was the first thing that came to mind, ok!). Well, that only made the big guy grunt and start moving towards me, so I backed away gradually and then stepped down the hill at a steady pace. So you see, in this case, running away was a good thing. Ok, actually running is pretty dumb, but calmly backing up with your eyes on the bear is a good plan at close range when they don't seem to be scared. Yes, bears are faster than you. But the point is not to outwit the bear - if it wanted you in its belly you would find yourself there rather quickly. The point is to make sure the bear knows where you stand, whether it be as a scary threat that they will retreat from, or a harmless hiker that will retreat from them.

Oh, and sometimes, if the bear is coming towards you and refusing to back away, it may want something from you. At this point it is a good idea to drop your bags and whatever else you have on you. A friend of mine even had a bear eat his tree planting bags which were full of, well, nothing but trees. But he was smart and dropped the bags so that the bear was not forced to rip them off of his body.

Encountering a bear is not a cut-and-dried issue. I'm sure you all know that you should NEVER WALK BETWEEN A MOTHER AND ITS CUBS, but besides that, every situation requires a slightly different approach. The best idea is to make noise while you're in the woods so you never have to meet them in the first place.

Long ago, in my more foolish days, I was riding a bike alone in Yellowstone National Park. Like any 18 year old, I pretty much thought I was immortal. And since I could pretty much wander as I pleased in my 'home territory' of the Sierras without any fear, I somehow figured it would be okay in Yellowstone too. The sun was low in the sky, it was warm, and I wanted to visit some natural arch landmark before the sun set. So I was riding my bike up some abandoned road, about 2 miles from the campground.

Just at the farthest apex of the road, when I was about to turn around, my instincts cut in, hard. Somehow I knew that it wasn't entirely safe where I was. I slowed down my bike, wondering what was going on, and suddenly, 5 feet away, I heard crashing in the bushes. Next thing I knew, there was an enormous black bear, about 20 feet away, staring at me.

Obviously at this point, the bear was as scared of me as I was of him. This sounds silly, but in an area where many people are armed, it was a wise response by the bear. The second of eye contact I had with that bear was amazing. It was like I could read its mind. The fear flashed almost instantly to a kind of embarassment, then an understanding of sorts. We were to continue on with the afternoons activities, and pretend it never happened. The bear began foraging for food, but all the while moving slowly away from me. With every log it rooted under or tree it sniffed, it was further away. Eventually, it wandered over a hill and was gone. At that point I finally felt it appropriate to utilize the massive amounts of adrenaline I'd built up in my system and get the hell out of there.

Bears are a lot like people. They are much smarter than we think, and like people, they seem to show a wide range of emotions. But unlike people, they don't lie. If you're paying attention, you can tell what the bear wants, and in doing so, avoid problems. Black bears are generally not hunters, and I've never even heard of a case of a black bear eating a human. (Although I'm sure a bear coming upon a quite dead human might react differently). The bear I encountered didn't want any trouble, and it made that evident. Although that bear scared the crap out of me, I owe it a lot for what it taught me in those few seconds. I hope it is still doing well.

In ending, a few things should be noted. Yet one more way that bears are similar to humans is that a few out of the group will make their living by stealing from others. Bears like this are often found near areas with high human populations, like popular campgrounds. These bears, although uninterested in humans, are very interested in their food. Never leave food in bear-accessable areas (including cars) when you are in bear country. And most importantly, never try to take food from a bear. If you see a bear acting suspiciously, like wandering through a campground in broad daylight, you might want to talk to rangers or other authorities. And of course, never feed a bear. Bears that become accustomed to humans often become belligerant and must be killed, or are killed by cars or other human-related activities.

Also, if you are in an area where grizzlies are found, be cautious. Grizzlies, which have huge humps on their necks and are larger than black bears, don't follow the same rules. They are aggressive and fearless, and any attempt to act 'dominant' to a grizzly, including yelling, throwing rocks, or direct eye contact, is a very bad idea.

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