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When I saw our motion-sensing lights flip on outside one night, I wasn’t surprised. All manner of creatures tend to set them off, including bats, raccoons, skunks, and our own barn cats. But something that night made me roll out of my cozy bed and peer through the window. That something, it turned out, was a bear casually strolling down our driveway straight toward our orchard and hen house. Then and there, I knew I had to arm myself with information so I could properly protect our homestead. My research, which included information from some of North America’s preeminent experts on black bears, led to fascinating findings that have made me more comfortable living with bears near our home.
Photo by Getty Images/Ivan_Sabo
Black Bear Basics
Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the only bears the majority of people in the United States encounter. According to Dr. Stephen Herrero, who taught animal behavior and ecology at the University of Calgary, and who’s widely considered an authority on the topic, there are roughly 750,000 to 800,000 black bears in North America. This makes them the most common bear species on the continent.
Despite its name, a black bear can be brown, red-brown (a color officially called “cinnamon”), blond (which is actually off-white or very pale-yellow), or black. Brown U. americanus shouldn’t be confused with brown bears (also known as “grizzlies”), which have dished faces and hunched shoulders. Black bears’ faces are straight, and their shoulders sit lower. They’re omnivores, eating both plants and meat, but only about 5 percent of their diet consists of small animals, such as fish and opossum. About 15 percent of a black bear’s diet is made up of insects, including ants, bees, and termites, and the remaining 80 percent usually consists of wild greens, fruits, and nuts. Thankfully for small farmers and homesteaders, black bears don’t often show interest in making meals of pets or livestock.
Even so, “Farms and black bears don’t get along too well,” according to Dr. Lynn Rogers, who’s been the senior author on more peer-reviewed scientific articles on black bears than anyone else, and whose research has been compared to Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees.
There’s no doubt black bears can do a lot of damage on farms and homesteads. I’ve personally seen them race through and break sheep fencing. They sometimes try to jump over fences, which can damage both fencing and t-posts. We’ve also had bears break into our garbage cans, strewing garbage across the homestead. My neighbors have seen black bears tear apart small structures, such as sheds and hen houses, destroy and raid beehives, tear up gardens, and eat fruit and nuts from orchards.
Photo by Getty Images/Paul Kammen
Bear-Proof Your Property
According to Rogers, humans are most likely to see black bears when wild food is scarce. They’re primarily attracted to farms and homesteads by human and animal food, garbage, beehives, compost piles, and grills. I see black bears most often in fall and spring, but it’s important to realize that in milder climates they don’t always sleep away the winter, especially if wild food sources remain abundant. That said, there are a few things you can do to discourage black bear visits to your homestead.
First and foremost, harvest ripe fruit and nuts promptly, including anything that’s fallen to the ground. Always keep livestock, pet, and human food protected. Storing feed in garbage cans or closed plastic containers often isn’t enough to deter bears, unless those containers are tucked away inside secure buildings. The same holds true for freezers or refrigerators; they’re best kept indoors.
If you hang bird feeders, make sure they’re at least 10 feet off the ground, and 10 feet away from tree trunks, porch railings, or anything bears could climb to reach them.
Clean your grill after every use, and be sure to burn the grease off. Don’t dump fat drippings anywhere in your yard. Store grills in a secure building when they’re not in use.
Keep kitchen garbage in sealed cans, ideally inside a building. To reduce odors that may attract bears, clean your garbage cans regularly. To make them even less attractive to bears, you can put moth balls inside them.
Photo by Erika Mitchell
Keep compost in enclosed plastic containers, and consider liming them if the compost has a strong smell. Don’t put grease, dairy, bones, or meat into your compost bins.
Store sunscreen, bug spray, and any other scented skin products inside the house, away from open windows. Avoid cooking with the windows or doors open when you can.
Berries are one of black bears’ favorite foods. While in the vicinity of berry patches, stay alert and make lots of noise by talking loudly, singing, or clapping. If you know you’ll be near berry patches, especially those in wooded areas, bring a leashed dog who will alert you if a bear is nearby. It’s also smart to carry a gun, or at least bear spray.
When doing chores at dusk or dawn, use a flashlight and make lots of noise.
Rogers notes that electric fences work really well at protecting animals, crops, and compost piles from black bears. A number of studies show that after touching an electric fence just once, black bears have little interest in messing with them again.
Photo by Erika Mitchell
How to Beat a Brush with a Bear
Herrero is best known for his study of black bear attacks on humans, and his subsequent book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. He looked at 110 years of data and concluded that deadly attacks are extremely rare. In the past decade, he estimates that only about two people were killed by black bears each year.
Therefore, if you live where black bears roam, you (and everyone in your family) should know how to react if you happen to bump into one on or near your property. There’s a lot of conflicting advice about what humans should do during bear encounters, however, most of the confusion comes from not understanding that the ways of brown bears are different from those of black bears.
First, it’s important to realize what type of black bear is the greatest threat. According to both Herrero and Rogers, despite what most of us have been taught, this isn’t a mother bear with cubs. “She may act very aggressively. She makes a lot of noise,” Herrero says in a video published on www.NYTimes.com. But the evidence is clear: Mama isn’t much of a threat to humans. So what kind of bears are involved in fatal attacks? “It’s largely male black bears that are looking for a meal,” says Herrero.
Photo by Terry Wild
Black bears that make a lot of noise, stomp the ground, or try to look like a threat aren’t the bears humans should generally be concerned about. “The bears that occasionally kill people are ones that do it very stealthily, much like you’d expect a predator to do,” Herrero continues. “They get close to a person and then they charge — usually without making any noise.” Being alone in the wilderness, or with only a single companion, makes an attack more likely, as does bumping into a sick or injured bear.
Herrero is also quick to point out that most black bears involved in fatal human attacks live in rural areas of Canada and Alaska. “There are a lot of black bears in the lower 48, but they don’t seem to be so involved,” he says in the video. Although it’s smart to protect your home and homestead from black bears, it’s also important to note that, as Rogers puts it, “Black bears aren’t the ferocious animals they’ve always been made out to be.”
In fact, during his career, he’s found them mostly docile. Early in his studies, Rogers found traps and tranquilizers to be completely unnecessary. Instead, “I walked with them for 24 hours at a time — including mothers with cubs — and never had a problem.” He allowed the bears to become familiar with him, until he could stroke their backs and feed them by hand; even the biggest males removed nuts from his palm with gentle tongues. Eventually, he could slip radio collars on them, check their heart rates, and examine them closely without fear. He’s called “The Man Who Walks With Bears” for exactly this reason.
Rogers also concluded that the old saying “never feed a bear” doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. In fact, he conducted an eight-year-long study that showed feeding stations half a mile from human campgrounds actually reduced problematic encounters with black bears by 88 percent. “And after I retired, I did private research for over 20 years, studying a community of about a dozen households who’d been feeding bears since 1961,” he says. “That community is known for its lack of bear problems. It’s the most peaceful coexistence with bears that I know of.”
Brad Anderson Illustration
If you see a black bear on your homestead:
Throw rocks at it (or shoot a paintball gun in its direction), and make a lot of noise. Just be sure you’re not cornering the bear, since this may instigate an attack.
If the bear manages to get inside a building, open all the doors and move well away from them. Never lock the bear in or make it feel trapped. Make noise to encourage the bear to leave.
If you encounter a black bear unexpectedly:
Back away slowly, making sure the bear has an escape route.
Make a lot of noise.
Don’t climb a tree; bears are better climbers than humans.
Don’t run away, even if the bear charges. Black bears can outrun humans, and watching you run may bring out a bear’s predatory instincts. Usually, a charging black bear will turn and run away if a human stands her ground, especially if that human holds out her arms to make herself look bigger than she is.
Many people wonder if they should play dead if a black bear attacks. Most experts agree that if you find yourself in the rare situation of being attacked by a black bear, it’s better to fight back. Hit the bear with a stick, a rock, or use your fists. Most black bears will retreat if you do.
This map shows the year-round range of black bears in the continental U.S. While the population was previously in decline, the species is now rebounding thanks to healthier, more bear-friendly forests and stricter laws protecting them. Gap Analysis Project
Kristina Seleshanko homesteads on 15 wooded acres, and is the author of 28 books, including The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook. She blogs at Proverbs 31 Woman.