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.