Last weekend a New Jersey man was killed by a black bear while hiking in Apshawa Preserve in northern New Jersey. Darsh Patel was hiking along with five friends when they encountered the black bear. After the bear started to follow them, they split up and ran in different directions. Searchers and Wildlife Officials later found the body of the man in the woods and euthanized a black bear found in the area.
So what should you do when you encounter a black bear in the woods? In this article you will find several tips. You can find most of these tips on the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website or in their information sheet, “Living with Pennsylvania Black Bears”.
First and foremost, be prepared before you go out. Know about the chances of encountering a black bear where you are going. However, keep in mind that bear can be found anywhere. I have observed a black bear crossing PA-56 in Windber right by the high school football stadium. This will also depend on the time of year. Bears become more active in the fall foraging for food to prepare their bodies for the upcoming winter. And contrary to common teaching, bears don’t sleep through the winter. They sometimes wake up and venture out to find any food available. The chance of encounters are increased at night throughout the year.
Another part about being prepared for bear encounters is to know about bears and their behaviors. Generally speaking, the black bears found in Pennsylvania are omnivorous feeding on both plants and animals. They will eat corn, acorns, berries and even grass. They will also feed on table scraps if available and carrion. They are able to see colors and identify human forms, but rely more on their sense of smell and hearing for locating prey and avoiding danger. The black bear in Pennsylvania is generally shy and will avoid conflicts with humans. However, if a bear has been fed human food or feel that their young are threatened, they can be more aggressive.
When hiking, camping or taking part in other outdoor activities in bear country here are some things to keep in mind. Don’t hit the trails alone. Go with a friend or a group. Bears will be more likely to flee from larger groups. As you are hiking, make noise. A black bear that hears you coming will most likely leave the area before you arrive. When hiking against the wind, slow down your pace. The wind will not carry your scent out in front of you in this case and will not be able to alert a bear that you are approaching. When camping, keep all food secured and consider using a bear keg or zip lock bags. Consider using a bear hang if backpacking.
So you are on the trail and you encounter a bear, what should you do? First and foremost, stay calm. The answer depends on a couple of things. If the bear has not observed you, slowly back away quietly. Do not turn your back on the bear and do not make any quick movements which may attract the bear’s attention. Once out of sight of the bear, find another route around the bear. If the bear sees you first, stop, and calmly talk to the bear. This will help the bear recognize you as a human and not prey. Do not look directly into the eyes of the bear as it may see this as a threat. If the bear seems agitated, again back away quietly and slowly. If you are in a group, stay together and close ranks. It will make you appear bigger than you are. Do not run away from a bear as they make take this as a sign that you are prey. Try to give the bear options for escape so that it doesn’t feel trapped.
Keep in the back of your mind that although rare, black bears may attack or try to bluff a charge to within a few feet so you should know how to protect yourself. If the bear appears to charge, wave your arms over your hand and yell at the bear. If the bear continues to charge, fight back against a black bear. Use anything that you have available including your fists. Try hitting the bear in the nose. Most often a black bear will retreat when you fight back. If you are in a group, stay together. You can all gang up on the bear, but always give the bear an escape route.
What you do at home can also help reduce bear encounters on the trails. Secure your trash in a can with a lid. Do not throw table scraps in the yard. If you have bird feeders, keep an eye on them. They could attract bears. If a bear gets into a bird feeder, do not replace it for a couple weeks and bring them in at night in bear country. Never feed a bear either on purpose or accidentally. Remember that a fed bear is a dead bear.
So be ready for black bear encounters on the trails around Johnstown, but don’t let them keep you from getting out and enjoying the beauty of the area. Have fun and I will see you on the trails.