Much has been said about avoiding conflicts with black bears but they do occur. Whenever you travel in bear country, especially in northwestern New Jersey and the northern parts of Pennsylvania, you have to accept the basic reality that you may encounter a bear.
There are many misconceptions about bear attacks. The fact is that most black bear attacks are done by young males in search of food. Less than 70 people have been killed by black bears in North America since 1900. But attacks and deaths do occur including that of a Rutgers student who was fatally attacked in September 2014 while hiking with friends in New Jersey. It was NJ’s first human death from a black bear since 1852.
Many bears have lost their fear of humans, not a good thing. Once bears become accustomed to human food and garbage, they become drawn to areas of human occupation. This may include backcountry campsites and dumpsters in camping areas.
If you are in open country, use binoculars to scan the horizon to look for bears. In more forested landscapes, be sure to make lots of noise as you are travelling.
Wildlife experts offer varying advice and every situation is different with varying results. But all agree; avoidance is your first priority and to fight back if a black bear attacks. If you have determined that the bear sees you as food your only chance of escape is to fight it or scare it away. While predatory attacks are rare this can be a very serious encounter. Since the bear is hunting you as prey, you must be prepared for an imminent attack. The bear may circle you, slowly moving in closer and closer until it decides whether to attack or not.
Bears will often bluff charge before attacking. This is designed to allow enemies to back down before the bear needs to actually make contact. It evolved as a way to prevent encounters with enemies and it may provide you with an opportunity to back away.
If a black bear makes physical contact, fight back with anything that is available to you. Fighting back may scare the bear off. If a bear is stalking you than you are in a predatory situation and fighting back is your only option. This also applies to any attack at night as these may also be considered predatory in nature.
Hit the bear with rocks, pots, pans, sticks or fists. The odds may seem against you in a fight, but bears generally do not see humans as prey, and a bear that makes a predatory attack is usually immature, starving, or wounded, and may be scared away if you hit it.
To stop black bears, sometimes all you need to do is hurt them; you do not necessarily need to kill them. Always carry pepper spray or better yet, bear spray, which can be used if attacked by a black bear or other wild animal. Handguns are another option for self-defense.
Pepper spray is only good at very close range; 10-20 feet. Wind will reduce this effective range even farther and may blow the spray back into your face. If the bear approaches within this range, point the spray at its eyes and discharge the contents. A better bet is to use any good brand of bear spray which will be most effective between 10-30 feet. Use both hands to hold the can, (the pressure is high and the can kicks up), and you want to aim low so the spray doesn’t go over the bear’s head. Hopefully, this will disorient the bear and allow you to escape, or at the very least deter it from attacking. Once you have partially discharged a canister of bear spray it should be discarded. While the spray may deter attacks, the smell of pepper can act as an attractor.
Most center fire handgun cartridge will dissuade a black bear if you hit them well. The more powerful the cartridge, the more damage you’ll potentially do to the bear. If you do have to shoot, put as many bullets as you can in the area above the lowered skull and below the big, muscular hump. As a last resort, if the bear is on you, shoot inside the mouth, in the eye if you can get it, or in the chest under the neck.
As for the choice of a handgun, you are better off picking a gun that you can shoot consistently versus the most powerful you can find. The last thing you want to do is let a large and aggressive bear get in close. Picking the right gun for self-defense in the back woods for bears is no different than on the street. You need to be able to shoot the gun accurately and consistently and pick the right bullets for the job.
Beware of bears that have first year cubs with them. In this situation, the female may not leave the area, but rather will defend the cubs. The sow may attack quickly if you are within its comfort zone. Be ready with your bear spray, and be prepared to climb a tree yourself if possible.
Bears become very aggressive when protecting a kill site. Learn to watch for signs of kill sites such as large accumulations of ravens and other scavenging birds or animals.
If you see a bear at a great distance don’t announce your presence if the bear has not seen you. If possible, retreat slowly and give the bear plenty of space. If you have the opportunity, you should retreat and leave the trail to the bear. If you must continue, back off a short distance, and give the bear time to leave the area. You should also do a wide detour quietly and quickly downwind to avoid problems.
If a bear has detected your presence your goal here is to act in such a way as to allow the bear to identify you, but to also let it know that you are no threat. Speak calmly so that it knows you are a human (their eyesight is quite poor). They will often quickly give ground to you once they identify you as human. If the situation permits, back away slowly, keeping a close eye on the bear. Otherwise, you may wish to detour around the bear, but in this case, detour upwind so that the bear can get your scent. Keep talking calmly. Waving your arms may help it identify you as a human.
Do not run. You can’t outrun a bear so don’t even try; bears can charge at up to 30 M.P.H. Try to retreat slowly. Back up slowly and try to put more space between you and the bear. Keep your backpack on as it can provide protection if necessary. Don’t make direct eye contact, but keep a close look at the bear as you back away.
If you have enough time, and the bear continues to move closer, take advantage of a tall tree to climb. Even though some bears can come up the tree after you, the hope is that they will feel less threatened, and thus less likely to chase you up the tree.
If you are mountain biking or on a rail-trail in an area where bear are pretty likely:
Use a noise maker on your bike, such as bells. You need to make noise, especially because bikes move very fast and exceedingly quiet. Bells are a start, but using your voice is an even better noise maker.
Watch for bear signs. If you suspect a bear may be in the area (based on crushed vegetation, fresh bear scat or fresh paw tracks), leave the area if possible, or at the very least, make an excessive amount of noise.
Avoid riding downhill at a high rate of speed. Should a bear suddenly appear, you will have less opportunity to react if you are moving quickly. This is especially true on winding hills where bears may be feeding around the next corner.
Avoid riding trails that are lined with seasonal food sources such as berries.
Ride in groups. This will increase your noise level and also ensure that there will be someone to assist you if necessary.