First things first: I love bears and I love my dogs. This is why, as a protective dog mom, I take great pride in knowing black bear etiquette. And on this sunny Saturday afternoon in July it really paid off!
After leashing up one of my dogs, I decided we’d walk on one of our local trails in Asheville, North Carolina. I typically walk my dogs on these trails three or four times a week, and the wildlife we encounter are the usual eastern gray squirrels, various birds, chipmunks and a mated pair of gorgeous pileated woodpeckers that we see from time to time. However, my dog Lennon and I were in for a real surprise this particular afternoon!
After walking about 45 minutes, Lennon started acting skittish and I had this gut feeling that there was either a bear or a coyote in the dense wooded underbrush to our right. We kept on walking anyway, when suddenly, a juvenile male black bear stood up out of the foliage just off the right side of the trail.
I kept calm and let out a firm “Hey bear!” and made sure to slowly back away from him, never turning my back and continuing to speak to him loudly and firmly the whole time. Once Lennon and I had gotten about 40 feet away from the bear, he dropped down to all fours and proceeded to charge. This is where my love of bears and my dogs collided in what ended as a best-case-scenario kind of encounter. Once my brain registered that this juvenile black bear was intentionally charging us, I went into protection mode and proceeded to yell (and by yell I mean YELL) at this bear. The bear stopped mid-charge and backed itself into the dense foliage. Knowing he wasn’t gone and might decide to greet us again, I still didn’t feel comfortable turning my back on the bear. And greet us again he did! For a second time, the bear lunged out of the foliage and charged us, and again, I yelled as sternly as I could, holding my position with my petrified 50-pound pit bull mix standing behind me. After his second charge, the young bear decided it was in his best interest to not try to approach us again and left the area (a good decision on his part!).
In the words of Ben Prater, our Southeast program director, “Teenage bears are punks!” I have to agree with Ben, as I believe that this subadult bear had just been kicked out of the “nest” by his mother and was likely trying to test the waters to see how big and bad he could be. The behavior he displayed is called “bluff charging,” and it can be typical of bears in general. A bluff charge occurs when a bear decides to size up a human it has just encountered to see how the human reacts, and decide what to do next.
To me, the only frightening thing about this encounter was that it occurred in a very urban area, on trails heavily trafficked by lone individuals and families with small children and dogs of all sizes. This encounter could have happened to anyone, and for two reasons, I am so glad that it happened to me. Reason #1: This was such an amazing experience. Words cannot express the love I have for bears, even the rowdy teenage black bear that charged me and my dog. To be able to witness firsthand the natural territorial behaviorisms of a juvenile black bear is an experience that I will truly cherish forever. Reason #2: I knew exactly how to respond to the black bear’s advances. But what if this bear had chosen to charge someone else who didn’t know how to respond to and interpret his mannerisms, and someone’s pet or child had gotten hurt? If one of those awful “what if” scenarios had occurred instead, that bear may have gotten himself killed, because in my state, like many others, if bears attack or pose a direct threat to humans, they are more often than not killed by state or federal wildlife management agents.
Recreating safely in the outdoors to prevent and reduce human-wildlife conflict is paramount. As visitors to the wilderness, we must do what we can to ensure we do not come into direct conflict situations with wildlife, especially those species that can pose a threat to us. It’s our responsibility to arm ourselves with the proper bear-aware knowledge when going into known bear country. In my case, I always make sure to leash my dogs on the trail and have a canister of bear spray handy. However, on that particular day, I made the mistake of zipping my bear spray into a deeper pocket in my backpack and was unable to locate it in time to have it ready. I now always carry my bear spray on my hip when I’m outside in bear country!
Ever since my recent encounter, I’ve been on a mission to educate my friends, family and neighbors on how to react in a situation like mine. It can make the difference between an amazing encounter and a dangerous or deadly one. So, if you happen to encounter a black bear, do what I did: Wave your arms, make yourself appear bigger, ensure that your pets are leashed and close to you, yell sternly (my go-to phrases are “NO BEAR” and “HEY BEAR”) and back away slowly, but have your bear spray ready to engage! You should do these things if you encounter a bear that has noted your presence and has begun acting in a territorial manner (signs of territorial behavior include grunting, pawing and bluff charging). It’s also smart to practice this behavior if you encounter a bear that hasn’t noticed you, as most bear attacks happen because the bear was startled. Respectfully letting bears know that you’re in the area is the best way to deter unwanted encounters. Know that a black bear standing on its hind legs is simply trying to get a better look at you, and your reaction to this mannerism will dictate what the black bear decides to do next. If you see a black bear that has not seen you, it is best to begin backing away slowly in the opposite direction, remaining alert at all times. If the black bear charges you and makes contact, you should fight back physically. Do not run. Black bears can run at speeds of up to 35 mph. Robb Krehbiel, our Northwest representative who leads bear awareness trainings and bear spray workshops for communities in the Northwest, suggests throwing rocks and sticks to combat a bluff charge and prevent an attack, because black bear attacks are typically predatory, and you want to demonstrate that you are capable of fighting back. Also, always ensure your dog is leashed on the trail, which provides you with a better chance of controlling your pup in case of a bear encounter, as some bears may interpret aggressive dog behavior as a challenge.
If you happen to live in a part of the United States that is home to grizzlies and black bears, you should know how to distinguish one from the other, as hair color is not always a reliable indicator. A quick identification tip is to look for the hump; grizzlies have one, black bears don’t. Black bears also have a more elongated face with taller ears, while grizzlies have a shorter muzzle and shorter rounded ears.
If you encounter a grizzly or a black bear, get your bear spray ready to engage and begin backing away slowly, refraining from making eye contact all the while speaking calmly. If you are charged by a grizzly and you find yourself without bear spray, lay face-down on the ground and immediately cover your neck and head with your hands and arms. Grizzly attacks are typically defensive, as the grizzly likely sees you as an annoyance and wants you out of their habitat, especially if your presence has inadvertently surprised the bear.
The likelihood of having a negative encounter with either a grizzly or black bear is slim, but it’s smart to always be prepared. Preparedness could save your life and the life of the bear! The absolute best things we can do to mitigate human-bear conflict on the trail are: Hike in groups of 3 or more, continuously talk or sing as you go, and remember to always, always carry bear spray, no matter what bear species you share the landscape with!
I hope that by reading my story, you have learned how to prepare yourself for action in case of a bear encounter. If we make a point to educate ourselves about the majestic wildness around us, how to behave in it and the need to conserve it in a manner that perpetuates justice for humans and wildlife, our world will become a better place for all (including punky teenage bears!)
Maddy Watson is a current Western Carolina University graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Affairs for Nonprofit Management. A lifelong lover of nature, she continues to develop her passion for wildlife conservation through both a philosophical and sociological lens as a Southeast Field Office intern for Defenders of Wildlife.
While seeing one of these magnificent creatures in the wild—from a distance—can be an exciting experience, it’s important to know the appropriate precautions to take so you can navigate safely in bear country. Knowing how to interpret bear behavior and act responsibly enhances your visit and is part of sharing our landscapes with wildlife.