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Interview with a Black Bear

Black Bear
Black Bear

Human-bear interactions and how to prevent them are a topic of intense debate on the Internet, but I’ve always found such discussions lopsided because we only hear from humans and not from bears. Therefore, I invited a dominant black bear from New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, named Alpha, to share his experience and insights about human-bear incidents from a bear’s point of view.

Philip: As you know, the White Mountain National Forest receives over 12 million visitors per year, more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined. What’s the current state of human-bear interactions in the White Mountains from your perspective?

Alpha: It’s actually quite good, considering the number of visitors who come to the White Mountains each year. While we had an increase in the number of human-bear incidents last year, most of them were localized around campgrounds and the result of careless or uneducated campers who didn’t protect their food from predators at night.

Philip: Can you explain why bears are attracted to human food?

Alpha: That’s the first misconception people have about us. Bears only seek out human food when they’re hungry and unable to find enough of their preferred food in the forest. They’re not attracted to human food and don’t become habituated to it once exposed, if their natural food sources are abundant and available. Black bear diets change seasonably, but they are susceptible to climate and other forest disturbances, which can limit food availability and make them seek out other food sources, like human food. For example, black bears prefer eating new leaves and insects in the spring,and  berries and tree nuts in the summer. When all the food disappears in the autumn, they retreat to their dens to hibernate through the winter. Heavy snowfall, drought, forest fires, or the loss of habitat due to housing developments, natural resource exploitation, or timber harvesting can all impact the availability of wild foods.

Philip: Really? That’s very different from what most have us have been led to believe, namely that black bears seek out human food and can become habituated to it.

Alpha: No. Studies conducted by the Forest Service show that’s a myth. Bears prefer wild food if it’s readily available, even if campers and backpackers do not take steps to protect their food.

Philip: What is the wild food supply like this year and what can we expect in the White Mountain National Forest?

Alpha: The above average snowfall we experienced this winter and spring has shortened the growing spring season somewhat and we are concerned about its impacts on the abundance of tree nuts this summer. Nature has a way of self-regulating itself, but there is room for concern this summer about the availability of wild food. If it’s low, we would expect more human-bear incidents as bear seek alternative food sources.

Philip: What can people do to mitigate such incidents?

Alpha: Proper food storage is critical, either by storing your food in your car, a campground bear bin, a bear canister or hanging a bear bag. This should always be done regardless of the availability of wild food, because black bears are naturally inquisitive, playful animals that will investigate new smells.

Philip: Are there certain smelly foods or personal hygiene products campers or backpackers should avoid bringing into the woods.

Alpha: Definitely. We’ve had the most problems with AXE deodorant and body spray. Black bears love the stuff and will come from miles around to investigate campsites where it’s present. If you want to avoid having an human-bear interaction, leave your AXE at home.

Philip: Thanks for the insights Alpha.

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  1. Ha, ha….love your perspective, Philip. Leave my AXE at home???? Good one. I never wear any of that crap when I have to get out. I have never had a problem with bears, either. If they show up in camp, just tell them to get out. They listen pretty well. Perhaps not the most intelligent of animals (not like a dog or cat) but they understand the meaning behind simple, forcefull words.

  2. I had to laugh at the specific AXE reference. Having had teenage boys and working with scouts, I know from personal experience that stuff really packs a punch. Thanks, now I have a reference point for telling them to leave it at home.

  3. the problem with stuff like AXE is that the wearer usually wears so much, probably due to bathing in it, you can smell it upwind. The bears are just trying to rid the woods of that foul odor…. :-)

  4. Well done, Alpha. I never knew bears were so articulate. Hopefully your grizzly cousins will be so willing to hold a pleasant conversation should we meet any this summer.

  5. Getting the word out that Axe attracts bears, not girls, might finally end the Axe Scourge.

  6. We used to camp in the Adirondacks for years and years and never had troubles with the local black bear population. In 18 years I only came across one while hiking from Pond to Pond to Pond and he was busiely tearing up a tree stump for grubs. He was about 150 years away and we just stopped and watched him. After about 10 minutes or so he got tired of tearing up the stump and stood up and looked around and saw us. He stared at us for a good two minutes and made a woof sound and then took off at a high rate speed away from us. 2 Years ago while visiting the same area their are a number of small camps there which were built way back in the 1800’s as logging Cabins which were bought and turned into family Camps. You could see on a number of the front doors big long deep scratchs made by the Bears, so times have changed the Bears do not appear to be afraid of humans anymore…… I too have noticed the unusual smells of humans out on the trail. Last fall I was hiking a section of the Pinhoti trail when I caught the scent of a womans perfume. The wind was blowing in my face so I knew the women had to be ahead of me. After about 20 minutes or so here she came, walking towards me with her husband and son, looking like a big yellow Flower with Rose colored jeans. She asked me what I used to keep the bugs off of me and I told her, that I did not use any perfumy soaps or after shave or cologne and I did not dress like a flower…I figure she had to be at least a quarter mile away when I caught a whiff of her..Which is why the Indians used to say “white man stink” we smell them far away. And thru hikers who have been on the trail for a long time begin to smell “Man” at long distances after awhile…And you know what,,I just hate catching the whiff of man anywhere like in a store..yuck…that is for women, but today, well never mind….Does anyone know if it is true that the color Blue attracts the most mosquitos??

  7. Insightful and hope the humour gets the message across. That bear needs to avoid DaveC ;)

  8. I talked to a guy on a trail who was well-coated in cologne- and he was continually bothered by the local yellowjacket population.

  9. At 4;00 am one morning I encountered a black bear about 15 ft from my tent. I had gone camping north of Woodland Park, CO at a camp ground just off the road in the national forest. There was no way to secure my food on the back of my motorcycle which is what interested this bear. I got dressed, stepped out of my tent without making eye contact and walked very slowly to the road and called the police. The bear grunted once and silently watched me walk away before resuming eating my food. Nice bear -no damage to me, the motorcycle, saddle bags, and most everything else. No claw marks or gouges! The bear left one small claw hole in the lid of my cooler when he/she popped the lid off. The saddle bags weren’t latched and the bear flipped the lids up and took everything out -no chew or claw marks . By the time the police arrived an hour later the bear and my food were gone. But the bear was messy – food wrappers everywhere. Can’t the park rangers teach their bears to be neater?

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