Bears and Humans Living Together

by: Mark Pulsifer

For many, spring is the time when we look forward to enjoying the outdoors while working, fishing, hiking or exploring. Our enjoyment is enhanced by the possibility of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats. However, the prospects of encountering animals such as black bears "in the wild" is a cause for concern for some Nova Scotians.

Concerns about encounters with bears are real. Even though there have been no documented cases of an attack on a human in Nova Scotia, black bears are potentially dangerous animals that should be treated with a great deal of respect. Increases in nuisance bear complaints and a continued high bear harvest in recent years indicates that our provincial bear population is higher than it has been for many years. Despite increased bear numbers and greater use of rural areas for, the chances of encountering a bear still remain small. However, the possibility is always there when in the woods.

Bears are normally shy of humans and generally will move away before we are even aware of their presence. In most cases, young bears can be scared off by making noises or waving your arms. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to recognize the difference between a young bear and a grumpy older sow or boar that is acting territorial. Older bears may not scare as easily. In fact shouting and arm waving may be interpreted as aggression.

Most bear encounters and attacks can be avoided, but there will be times when wind or other background noises may result in encounters between bears and people. However, people can do a number of things to minimize the chances of encountering a bear or if a meeting occurs, reduce the chances of injury.

  1. Avoid areas where bears have recently been seen or known to use, such as berry patches. This may not be practical, but if you are concerned about meeting a bear and you don't have to go to that area, don't go.

  2. If you want or need to be in an area where you think you may meet a bear, then:
    • be alert and aware of your surroundings, watch for bear droppings, tracks, torn up stumps or logs, and digging by a large animal
    • make lots of noise, carry a radio, a small bell, or a can with stones in it. Many encounters result from bears being startled by suddenly meeting a human on the same trail or in the same berry patch
    • do not go alone, having more that one person increases the opportunity for noise and the chance that a bear will know you are there. A second or third person also means having more watching eyes.
    • take a dog along on a leash. A dog running loose may wander away or chase a bear back to you. A dog is a good early warning detection system, they are good company, and will alert you if another animal is in the area, especially a bear.

  3. Never give a bear the opportunity to associate food with people. Once they learn that humans are an easy source of food, they will return again. Never feed a bear or leave food lying where a bear may get easy access to it.
    • keep garbage cleaned up and in proper containers around homes and camps, do not store garbage too close to your home or camp
    • do not leave food scraps on the back porch or in the yard for other animals to clean up, you may feed more than raccoons
    • when in the woods working, fishing, or camping do not leave food where a bear can find it easily, secure food 8 to 10 feet up in a tree until needed or leave it in your vehicle, burn food scraps and store remaining food in air-tight containers.

If a bear detects you in time, it will usually avoid an encounter. However, there will be times when meetings are unavoidable. There are no guaranteed rules for reacting to a bear encounter. Each situation will be unique, depending on the situation and the bear. Common sense and good judgement are enough to avoid serious consequences. The following guidelines may help in these situations:

  1. Keep calm

  2. Leave the area immediately, do not run unless you can get to a safe place before the bear gets to you. Running may invite the bear to chase. Back away slowly while keeping an eye on the bear. Go back the way you came.

  3. If you see a bear before it sees you, stop and retreat. If possible, let the bear catch you scent by moving upwind of the bear.

  4. If you encounter an approaching bear that is unaware of your presence give it the right of way. If the animal is more than 100 m away, make enough noise for it to become aware of you.

  5. If aware that a bear some distance away is watching you, walk slowly away. If the bear follows, leave an article of clothing behind so it is distracted and can recognize the scent from a human.

  6. If you should encounter an adult bear or a female with young, act non-threatening.
    • do not make sudden movements and or direct eye contact
    • move slowly away and up wind so the bear(s) can identify you as a human
    • provide lots of opportunity for the bear to leave and don't get between the female and her cubs

  7. If you are being threatened by a bear
    • talk in a calm, authoritative voice while backing away slowly, leave an article of clothing behind to distract the bear and leave the area immediately
    • if a bear should attack do not play dead, black bears are not fooled. If there is no way to safely avoid the attack, you may have to act aggressively by shouting, waving your arms, and throwing sticks or rocks. Continue to try to get away.

It is important to remember that bear attacks are rare. In nearly all instances, bears go out of their way to avoid contact with humans. The most important thing to do when you encounter a bear is to leave the area immediately. People living, working or travelling in areas frequented by bears must be familiar with the area and use good common sense. There is a much greater likelihood that a chance encounter with a bear can be looked back on as a positive and memorable experience.

Anyone wishing further information on bears or assistance with nuisance problems should contact a local Natural Resources office.

Note: Some sporting goods stores sell a pepper spray designed as a dog deterrent that may help in an emergency. They are not 100 per cent effective but may provide the user with some extra time to leave the area. However, anyone using these sprays should be careful to not get the spray into their own eyes. It will cause intense burning and may result in temporary loss of vision.