Encounters with Black Bears

Encountering a black bear in the wild is a two-way encounter – you encounter the bear, and the bear encounters you. How you react may affect how the bear reacts. And the more you understand about bear behaviors, the better you’ll understand what to do. The video here and information below will offer some good insights on bear behavior.

Teachers and students will also find an entire educational section on Bear Behavior in the downloadable Understanding Black Bears Curriculum. The program equips teachers with a variety of lesson activities and students with videos, slide shows, pictures, charts, templates and other materials to observe and interpret black bear behaviors. They identify preconceptions about black bear behavior then propose explanations based on observations while recognizing alternate explanations of black bear behavior.

Below is some of the information teachers get in their educational support materials…

The Science of Ethology and Behaviorism

Today, genes (instinct/nature), environment (learning/nurture), and development (life experiences) are all considered to play a part in shaping an animal’s behavior. The scientific fields of ethology and behaviorism have evolved and expanded into multidisciplinary fields such as sociobiology and behavioral ecology (the study of the ecological and evolutionary basis for animal behavior). The field encompasses biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, and many others. Why is it important to study animal behavior? An understanding of animal behavior enables scientists and laypersons to evaluate the welfare and management of wild, companion, and farm animals. Animal behavioral research has grounded efforts to protect habitats and develop animal corridors, increase populations of rare species through selective breeding and artificial insemination, manage populations, reintroduce endangered species into the wild, create consumer products, and increase peoples’ understanding of their domestic pets. However, its discoveries have expanded beyond the behavior of animals to include understanding the evolutionary history of human behavior, and the development of educational learning theory.

Black Bear Behavior

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Black bears are highly curious, very intelligent, mobile, and adaptable animals. They quickly learn by trial and error, adapting to new stimuli and circumstances. For example, one study indicated that bears near urban/wild land edges were active fewer hours each day, entered their dens later, remained in them for fewer days, and shifted their activities to nocturnal periods. Curious black bears will explore and learn about novel objects in their environment by manipulating them with their forepaws and by chewing. Bears can also learn from other bears; bear cubs learn many behaviors by watching their mother. Like most animals, black bears exhibit certain behaviors that can sometimes forecast their mood or intentions. A black bear standing on its hind legs is often curious, and is trying to see or hear better. A nervous black bear may salivate excessively. A frightened black bear may run off or act defensively, giving visual and vocal cues such as swatting the ground with its paw or blowing explosively through its nostrils.

Black Bear Populations

In many areas of the county, black bear populations have recovered from historic lows. Beginning in the late 1980s through the start of the 21st century, black bear numbers increased at a rate of two percent a year continent wide. Changes benefiting black bears during this time included reforestation of the landscape, black bear reintroduction programs, and regulations on hunting black bears. Though black bears have not reclaimed all of their original range across America, they have rebounded to populations of an estimated 800,000 bears in 37 states and all Canadian Provinces. At the same time, human populations have expanded, numerically and geographically. In some areas, these two expanding populations are intersecting. In overlapping habitats, humans can often coexist with black bears. The challenge is to find a balance between the number of black bears a habitat can support, called the biological carrying capacity, and the number of bears the human community will accept, called the cultural carrying capacity.

Coexisting with Black Bears

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A key factor in predicting a person’s attitudes towards black bears is his or her perception of how dangerous bears are. Familiarity fosters positive attitudes. In New York State, a 2002 mail survey indicated the majority of residents enjoyed having black bears in the state. Most survey respondents had seen a wild black bear and almost all perceived it as a positive experience. Negative attitudes towards black bears are often related to concerns for personal safety, reactions to bear damage to crops or property, and beliefs centering on real or perceived competition for game and habitat. Human behaviors that can benefit black bear populations include habitat restoration and conservation programs, land use planning to limit habitat fragmentation, research and management programs, and wildlife education programs. Human behaviors that negatively affect black bears include feeding bears, harassing bears, land development in “bear country,” human activities that reduce natural bear food sources, and management strategies that affect other wildlife species that compete for resources (i.e. White-tailed deer).

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Research into animal behavior is a fascinating subject for student study. It is easily accessible for independent research in a student’s backyard or community, and is diverse enough in its methods and study subjects to appeal to a variety of interests and skill levels. It is also a powerful way to foster critical-thinking skills and to engage students in the workings and history of science.

For more background on bear encounters, watch the movie on the Living With Bears page.