Brief No. 73

Mike Cherney on Black Bears

Project: Wildlife   Location: Mythical State of Jefferson   Subject: Ursus americanus

Words by Mike Cherney, photography by Daniel Wakefield Pasley

There’s this sweet gravel loop called MDK which I ride a bunch ‘cause it just has everything and it’s right out the door to catch a quick blast of endorphins. Approaching the summit of the first climb I'm motivated... one with the effort and dialed for the upcoming descent that’ll drop me into Goods Gulch and the climb out over Shoefly. Rolling over the top, shifting into the large gears, gaining speed, tucked and floating on the bike over the uneven terrain, totally in the flow and the moment. Then, wham, out of the brush on my left comes this black bear (Ursus americanus), 10 feet in front of me and already up to speed running breakneck in the same direction I'm going.

For 300 feet it’s me and the bear blasting down the gravel road. I’m hang’n right on it’s ass, holler’n, "Go bear go!" and it's sending up dust like a beer-blurred motocrosser. As quick as it came onto the road, it dove off into the trees and gulch below. Frigg’n super rush of adrenaline, heart rate pinned and a 110 degree left turn just ahead. Made my day.

A few days later I’m testing some cross/adventure tire combos to be ready for Noel’s 'Pain Train Endurance Race' in Oct. So I mount up some other rubber and head back out to that MDK loop to make comparisons. Same route that I raced the bear on, but this time I'm looking very carefully around me as I ride while pushing the new tire combo as hard as I can to find it’s limits. I’m testify'n that a 47mm front tire w/ 35psi is so much more fun than a 35mm @ 55psi.—duh! This loop finishes up with a 3 mile run on Kingsbury Rd. coming off Shoefly, rolling and twisting, always downhill on gravel surface back to town. The fun factor and speeds are very high with the big tires soak’n up the terrain.

I’m reflecting on bears and the lack of seeing them this time around. A quarter mile before the road goes back to paved and into town, I get this big black dot in the far left of my vision... big black dots are not usual in the woods. Brakes duly applied and rolling to a stop, I see two bears standing in a spur road, check’n me out about 30 yards off. Mama bear is giving me the evil eye and cub bear slinks behind mom, peaking out to see what's gonna happen. I’m talk’n calmly to them, asking if they are finding water and enough food, they're look’n at me. A few moments go by and I guess mama bear feels I’m no threat and turns the cub and self up the spur and away they go.

Now I've lived in bear country for 14 years, I ride constantly in the backcountry and if I see a bear or three every year I feel fortunate. The first five years I saw zero bears and was think’n, how rad was everyone else getting when they told me their bear stories? Now just in the past three days I’ve seen three bears, and I raced one of them down the road. And, I had never before spotted a cub. Payback for 5 years of no bear sightings, or is there sump’n unusual going on ‘round here?

Black Bear Facts

Information prepared by Andrea Hess, American Bear Association

Did you know that although they are called black bears, colors can range from black to cinnamon brown, silver-blue and, occasionally, even white? The white bears are called "Spirit" or "Kermode" bears.

Ten Fast Facts About Black Bears

  1. eat mostly berries, nuts, grasses, carrion, and insect larvae
  2. have color vision and a keen sense of smell
  3. are good tree climbers and swimmers
  4. very intelligent and curious
  5. can run up to 35 miles per hour
  6. weigh an between 125 to 600 pounds
  7. go without food for up to 7 months during hibernation in northern ranges
  8. usually give birth to 2 to 3 cubs during the mother's sleep every other year
  9. can live over 25 years in the wild (average age in the wild is 18)
  10. are typically shy and easily frightened

Habitat Preservation

Black bears have lost over 60% of their historical range. As human encroachment increases, preserving large areas of undeveloped land where bears and other animals can thrive is vital. Crucial components include adequate sources of food and water, denning sites such as rock crevices, hollow trees, and dense vegetation, contiguous travel corridors with sufficient cover for protection from poachers, harassment, and associated dangers from human development.

Avoiding "nuisance" encounters in Bear Country

Black bears are highly intelligent and adaptable. This species has a great capacity to live in close proximity to people. Unfortunately, many bears are shot needlessly because of unfounded fear and human carelessness. Led by a keen sense of smell, bears will naturally gravitate to potential food sources found in unsecured garbage, bird feeders, orchards, farm crops, beehives, outside pet food, and organic compost piles. FOOD AND FEAR DRIVE BLACK BEAR BEHAVIOR. Therefore:

Properly store or secure all odorous food/non-food items. Use plastic bags to seal in odors and store garbage inside buildings. Use electric fences around hives, orchards, and compost piles. Attach spill pans to bird feeders and hang out of reach (10 feet up). Clear away dense brush and protective cover from yard.
Don't surprise a bear; black bears tend to be nervous and easily frightened. They can cause injury if suddenly startled, cornered, or provoked. Warn a bear you are coming by occasionally clapping or using bells. Use caution when hiking in windy weather, downwind, along streams, through dense vegetation or natural food areas, and when approaching blind curves where a bear may not hear, see, or smell you.

Should you encounter a black bear

  1. Stay calm - DO NOT RUN (running may elicit a chase response by the bear).
  2. Pick up children so they don't run or scream; restrain dog; avoid eye contact and talk in soothing voice.
  3. If the bear stands up, he is NOT going to attack but is curious and wants a better sniff or view.
  4. Back away slowly; if bear chomps jaw, lunges, or slaps ground or brush with paw, he feels threatened.
  5. Slowly retreat from area or make wide detour around bear; don't crowd or block bear's escape route.
  6. Note: Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. A person is 180 times more likely to be killed by a bee and 160,000 times more likely to die in a car accident. Most injuries from black bears occur when people try to feed, pet, or crowd them. Bears will nip or cuff bad-mannered humans, as they will bad-mannered bears. They are very strong and powerful animals; bears should always be treated with caution and respect.