Species of interest: Black bear (Ursus americanus)
Black bear. Photo by Scott E. Hygnstrom
Size: When on all fours, male black bears stand about 3 feet high at the shoulder, and may be up to 6 feet long. They weigh 250 to 350 pounds on average, with some reported at over 600 pounds Females are considerably smaller, commonly weighing 150 to 200 pounds.
Signs of their presence:
Tracks: Somewhat like a person’s footprint, with long claw marks. Hind print is about 7 inches long x 4 inches wide.
Scat: Can be variable, depending on what they’re eating, but often roughly cylindrical. Somewhat like, but larger than a dog’s scat. May include seeds, plant material, and insect parts.
Sounds: Adult females and cubs communicate with low moans and squeals. You may hear an adult hiss, growl, or pop their teeth at each other and occasionally people, if the bear feels threatened or is under stress. At the same time, their ears may be laid back and hair on their backs may be raised. If you hear these sounds and see these postures, be careful! Bears also bellow, whimper, mumble, and grunt, but people usually don’t hear those noises.
Dens: In the winter, bears den in shallow caves; beneath brush piles, rotten logs, or blow-downs; or in depressions, hollow trees, or culverts. Leaves or grass sometimes are used as bedding. In the summer, they’ll rest in shallow depressions in the forest litter or sleep in trees.
“Bear trees.” Bears rub against trees and will stretch high to claw and bite the tree (4 1/2 to 6 feet off the ground). Those high scratch marks may be a mark of dominance (“See how big I am?”). The rubbing could be a form of scent marking, or maybe they’re just itchy.
While foraging, bears will dig; turn over rocks and logs; and tear open logs, yellow jacket nests, and beehives. In addition, you may see:
- Trails leading to a food source.
- Flattened areas in corn or grain fields or berry patches.
- Fruit stripped off cherry and apple trees, with possible damage to the branches.
- Scattered garbage around a dumpster or garbage can.
- Damaged buildings or cars if they smell food within.
Opportunists. During the spring and summer, black bears mostly eat plants and insects, especially ants and bees. They feed heavily on fruits such as apples, cherries, and raspberries, and on nuts and agricultural crops, often corn. Bears also eat amphibians, reptiles, fish, and small mammals, mostly rodents, although they can prey on fawns. In the fall, nuts are a critical food, especially acorns and beechnuts, which provide the fat they need to get them through the winter. Bears will eat carrion and garbage. They sometimes kill livestock. They love honey and will eat the bees, too.
Typical activity patterns:
Social style: Generally solitary, although they will interact at a food source.
Daily activity: Most active at dawn and dusk, but may be active any time, depending on the season and availability of food.
Hibernator? Bears are not true hibernators, but they do sleep deeply during the winter. The females give birth while they’re in this sleepy state. They groom and nurse their young—still half-awake—for about four months (perhaps you can relate). During a warm spell, the females will get up and go outside for a short time.
Migrates? No. They will, however, travel great distances in search of food. Males will move hundreds of miles away from their birth site, while females typically will not.
Distribution in NY and the Northeast: Black bears are found throughout North America and are the most numerous of our bear species. New York’s population (after the hunting season) is estimated at 6,000 animals and growing. Traditionally, bears have lived in three areas in New York: The Adirondacks, Catskills, and Allegheny regions, which all have large, unbroken forests and little human activity. Their range is expanding. Bears are now found throughout much of New York, excluding Long Island.
Habitat: Most often found in the deep woods, in areas with large tracts of mature hardwoods or mixed forests that include some wetlands, such as swamps, rivers, streams, or lakes. They will live in second-growth forests if better habitat is limited. Black bears like areas with thick ground cover and few people but they will venture into farm fields, orchards, and suburban areas.
Territory and home range: The home range of males is up to 100 square miles. Females stay closer to where they were born, with home ranges often less than 15 square miles.
- Pair bonding style:
- Breeding dates: May to June, sometimes extending into July, August, or even September.
- Litter size: 2 to 3 cubs. Females usually have cubs every other year.
- Birthing period: Late January to early February. They give birth in their winter dens.
- Weaning dates: At about 7 months old (late August to early September).
- Amount of time young remain with parents beyond weaning date: They den with their mother their first winter. The family stays together until the spring, when the female is ready to mate again, usually in June.
Time of year: Any time of year, but problems usually peak in June through September.
What are they doing?
Most complaints are associated with their feeding. Bears eat bird seed and destroy feeders, especially in the early spring and late fall. They may enter porches seeking stored bird seed, and raid dumpsters, garbage cans, coolers, tents, camps, and picnic tables looking for an easy meal. This is common at campgrounds and resorts throughout the summer and early fall. At restaurants, bears raid dumpsters, garbage cans, and the containers that hold cooking grease. Bears eat corn and grain, and may cause additional damage to the field while they’re feeding. Sometimes this damage may make it hard to harvest the crop. Bears eat fruits, such as cherries and apples. Occasionally, they will attack domestic livestock or poultry.
De-bunking myths about bears:
Bears are true hibernators. No. True hibernators, such as ground squirrels, do not wake up until spring. Bears will lose about a quarter of their body weight during the winter. During their deep sleep, their body temperature drops about 7° and their heart rate drops by about 50%.
Bear dens are huge. Actually, bear dens are much smaller than most people think—only about 2 feet high by 6 feet long. Bears don’t often reuse their dens.
Playing dead will deter a black bear. This defense is meant to be used with grizzly bears. Playing dead will not deter an attack by a black bear. Walk backwards slowly and maintain eye contact with the bear. Black bears sometimes will bluff charge. If a bear charges, clap your hands, wave your arms, and yell.
Legal status in New York:
Big game species with set season.
From ECL 11-0521: “1. The department may direct any environmental conservation officer, or issue a permit to any person, to take any wildlife at any time whenever it becomes a nuisance, destructive to public or private property or a threat to public health or welfare, provided, however, that where such wildlife is a bear, no such permit shall be issued except upon proof of damage to such property or threat to public health or safety presented to the department. Upon presentation of such proof, the department may issue a permit authorizing the use of trained tracking dogs pursuant to section 11-0928 of this article, and, if the department has determined that no other alternative is feasible, a separate permit to take the bear. Wildlife so taken shall be disposed of as the department may direct.”
From ECL 11-0523: “2. Any bear killing or worrying livestock on land occupied or cultivated, or destroying an apiary thereon, may be taken or killed, at any time, by shooting or device to entrap or entice on such land, by the owner, lessee or occupant thereof, or any member of the owner’s, lessee’s or occupant’s immediate family or by any person employed by such owner, lessee or occupant. The owner or occupant of such lands shall promptly notify the nearest environmental conservation officer and deliver to such officer the carcass of any bear killed pursuant to this subdivision. The environmental conservation officer shall dispose of the carcass as the department may direct.”
Most black bears avoid people unless they learn to associate people with food. This usually happens around dumpsters, garbage cans, campgrounds, and places where people illegally feed bears. Bears that develop this habit pose the greatest threat to people. Wildlife professionals often say “a fed bear is a dead bear,” referring to the reality that when bears become habituated on humans for food, they often become a threat to humans and therefore end up getting trapped and shot to protect human health and safety. The conditions need to be changed. To do that, think with your nose.
Manage the garbage:
- Use bear-proof garbage containers, or place regular cans in bear-proof storage facilities. Garages (with closed doors) are safer than porches, for example.
- Use plastic bags inside garbage cans to help hide odors. Putting camphor, mothballs, air fresheners, disinfectant, or an ammonia-soaked rag in the can to mask food odors.
- Remove garbage regularly. Bears especially like grease, fat, bacon, and other meats.
- Don’t burn garbage because that makes it more attractive to bears.
- Clean garbage, compost, and recycling containers frequently with ammonia, bleach, or disinfectant.
- Keep the site clean.
- Do not leave dirty diapers or diaper pails outside.
Eliminate other enticing food sources:
- If people are feeding bears, persuade them to stop. It’s dangerous and illegal!
- Don’t feed birds during the spring and summer. Suet, bird seed, and the sweet liquid placed in hummingbird feeders attract bears.
- Remove livestock carcasses from the site.
- Pick and remove all fruit from trees that are located near buildings.
- Don’t feed pets outside— even an empty dish can attract a bear.
- Keep livestock in buildings and pens, especially during the birthing seasons. If possible, locate those pens away from woods and areas that provide good cover for bears.
- When camping, store food and organic wastes in bear-proof containers, on elevated platforms (“bear poles”), or in an airtight container that’s suspended on a rope between two tall trees that are downwind of your camp site. Bear poles should be 15 to 20 feet above ground. The pole should be at least 6 inches wide. Wrap a 4-foot band of galvanized sheet metal around the pole at a height of 6 to 7 feet above ground.
- Plant crops (corn, oats, fruit) away from woods and areas that provide good bear cover.
Don’t create a scent trail to a vulnerable area:
- Turn off kitchen exhaust fans that vent to the outside when they’re not in use. Clean vent screens regularly.
- Don’t eat or cook in your tent. Wash your hands before you handle your gear. Clean everything that touched food, such as dirty dishes and pots. Keep anything that might smell good to a bear far away from your tent. If you can, store food in a bear-proof container, or suspended between two trees, or in your car’s trunk. Some bears will break into cars and tear through the back seat to get into the trunk.
- Remove the grease can from gas and charcoal grills after every use, and turn the grill on “high” for several minutes after you’re done cooking.
- Cover barbeque grills with aluminum foil before cooking. Dispose of the foil properly when finished.
- Clean barbeque pits and grills thoroughly with an ammonia-based cleaner.
Protect vulnerable areas and vulnerable buildings:
- Remove brush and cover around homes, corrals, and livestock pens, creating a 50-yard barrier.
- Electric fences work well to protect a specific site, such as an apiary, cabin, or landfill. Several factors influence the choice of material and design, including the size of the vulnerable area, the amount of bear activity, and local laws.
- If building in an area that’s prone to bear damage, use strong construction materials. Solid frame construction, 3/4-inch plywood, strong, tight shutters, strong, tight doors, and steel plates will keep bears out.
- Locate camp sites and hiking trails in areas that bears don’t use much.
- Clear hiking trails so you can see 50 yards down the trail.
Frighten bears away from a site:
First, a caution: if a bear shows any aggressive behaviors , such as growling, hissing, popping its teeth, or if its ears are laid back and the hair on its back is raised, DO NOT attempt to harass it and DO NOT approach the bear! It might attack. If a bear is aggressive, back off.
What to do if you encounter a black bear:
In most states, black bears rarely behave aggressively toward people but there have been fatal attacks. Be alert. If a wild bear approaches a person in a remote area, consider that as a sign of aggression. The same behavior from a bear that’s used to people and is often fed illegally would not be considered aggressive. Back off slowly. Watch out for cubs. DO NOT climb a tree or run away. You can usually frighten a bear away by making a lot of noise. Shout, clap your hands, throw objects, bang on pots, use a siren or boat horn, or rev an engine. Just don’t go so far that the bear feels threatened enough to attack.
What to do if you’re attacked by a black bear:
- Immediately call for help if you can: call the state wildlife agency, local law enforcement, forest rangers.
- Fight back with all you’ve got. Hit the bear with rocks, sticks, your fists, or feet. Yell. Wave your arms and flap coats. Stay together with other people. If the bear is biting or mauling you, shoot it.
- DO NOT climb a tree or run away.
- DO NOT play dead. That seldom works with black bears.
- As soon as you can, slowly back away from the bear. Avoid the bear and any cubs.
- If the attack stops but the bear follows you, try to frighten the bear away again.
- Pepper spray is effective when you have a close encounter with a black bear; its range is usually less than 30 feet. The active ingredient is capsaicin.
What to do if a bear is not aggressive:
- A combination of frightening techniques may convince the bears to leave the area. As always, your chance of success increases if the techniques are used together and in an unpredictable fashion.
- The Critter Gitter® scare device, which combines noise and flashing lights, may work.
- Visual frightening devices: night lights, strobe lights, and scarecrows will work.
- Frightening noises: propane cannons, loud music, air sirens, cracker shells, boat horns, banging on pots, and shouting usually will scare bears away.
- Guard dogs may be able to keep bear out of fenced areas, but few dogs are a match for a bear in a fight.
- For WCOs with a commercial pesticide applicator license: Bear BeGone,® a device that looks like a plastic barrel, dispenses pepper spray when a bear enters the barrel and pulls the baited trigger.
A WCO can only trap a bear under certain conditions, and under special permit by the state wildlife agency.
Culvert trap: This is the most common trap used to capture bears. It’s another variety of cage trap, although obviously much larger than the kind you’d set to catch a woodchuck. A large culvert pipe is placed on a trailer or stand. Inside the pipe is a baited trigger, which closes the door. Post warning signs to keep people away from the trap.
After the bear is trapped, the handler may use nonlethal harassment techniques, such as shooting the bear with rubber buckshot, to stress the bear. Contact your local wildlife agency office for details. This training is called “aversive conditioning” And should persuade a bear to avoid the area.
Preferred killing methods:
- Shooting, using a 12-gauge shotgun with a slug, or a center fire rifle (.30-caliber or larger). Target the head, if no rabies testing is required, or the heart-lung area.
- Lethal injection of barbiturate
Control strategies that don’t work particularly well, or aren’t legal in some states:
- Although legal in some states, “bear traps,” which are foothold traps that are larger than 53/4 inch, are not legal in most states.
- Cable restraints are not legal for bear in New York State. They may be in other states and may require a special license.
- You cannot use fireworks to frighten bears in New York.