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Understanding Bear Behavior

By David Alloway

Sure, black bears have individual personalities, but the key to your personal safety is understanding their common behavior.

My first encounter with a black bear came at a picnic in Colorado when I was 6 years old. Probably it was drawn by the smell of our cold fried chicken, which we were not about to give up. My father reacted by shouting and throwing firewood at it. It fled, hotly pursued by our dachshund.

In recent years black bears have been reestablishing their former range in the Trans Pecos mountains of Texas. Pushed out of Mexico and New Mexico in the spring by the old boars, the young males cross the desert in the spring, living on yucca blossoms until they reach new ranges in the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains. As Texas bear populations grow, human contacts will increase. But most encounters with black bears can be avoided by understanding their behavior.

Bears are curious, attracted by new sights, noises or smells. They often will take the easiest course, using hiking trails and dining on garbage. Bears also are intelligent. So-called “mugger” bears in other states have even learned to intimidate backpackers into dropping their packs and fleeing. Like people, black bears have individual personalities, ranging from timid to hostile.

In his book Bear Attacks, Stephen Herrero cites an American Indian saying: “A pine needle fell. The eagle saw it. The deer heard it. The bear smelled it.” Bears rely on smell more than their other senses. Some are able to scent carrion miles away. The unfamiliar odors of perfume, deodorants, fabric softeners and insect repellent may draw them in.

In camp, bears can be discouraged by keeping food properly stored in trees, buried in plastic bags or in special bear-proof caches such as the heavy steel boxes the National Park Service has installed in Big Bend. Include toothpaste and anything else with odors that may arouse their curiosity. Never cook near the sleeping area in bear country. Cook at least 100 yards downwind. Meals should be planned for little waste and leftovers and garbage must be carefully stored or disposed of. It may also be prudent to bathe and change clothes after cooking. If packs are contaminated with attractive odors, they should be stored away from camp with the compartments open to keep them from being ripped apart.

Statistically, you are safer in a tent than sleeping outside, as long as the tent does not have food in it or smell attractive to a bear. Making loud noises while hiking in bear country can prevent surprise encounters. There is evidence that some bear species are aggressively attracted to the smell of menstrual blood. No solid corollary exists between menstrual odor and black bears, but it may be advisable to avoid bear country during such times. Used sanitary items should be disposed of carefully.

Black bears rarely attack, and then only when people are too close. If a black bear is belligerent, react aggressively by shouting and throwing anything available at the animal. If you are attacked, fight as hard as you can, gouging the eyes, punching the nose and using any weapon within reach. Even young children have successfully fought off black bears. Black bears and grizzlies have different characteristics and reasons to attack. Aggressive behavior toward a grizzly is not recommended. Grizzlies, however, are not found in Texas.

Bad things happen when people feed black bears, try to pet them or otherwise get too close. They are not the cuddly companions portrayed in the movies, even if one can occasionally be chased off by a wiener dog.

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