Lots to learn about black bears

The day greeted us with crisp promise, and a plan to explore two canoe portages we found marked on our map.
Finding trails is an exhilarating experience—especially when you consider that these long ago routes lead to a tucked away peace of a remote lake.
At this time of year, however, you can also be greeted by something not so fresh—the thick stench of baited bear drums.
I’m not opposed to bear hunting, but since I’m finding so many bear attractants this year it has me curious about whether they add danger to the trails.
I’ve often told guests when we hike that we are not at risk, but I never had the research to back up my claim.
So this week I decided to focus on studying about bears.
First, I hauled out some books on the topic and perused all the files I could find about deaths that have occurred as a result of black bear attacks.
Then I visited the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota where you can watch footage of wild bears and observe enclosed bears on site.
The center highlights the work of bear biologist Lynn Rogers, who is regarded by many as the Jane Goodall of black bears.
He spends 24-hour periods walking and resting with black bears, and his research, which spans over 42 years, is the subject of several documentaries.
Everything I’ve discovered from these sources has resulted in a few surprises.
For example, only one black bear in about a million is inclined to prey on a human.
In comparison, one human out of 18,000 attempts murder in North America (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004).
These are useful statistics. I plan on citing them with visitors who are afraid of our surrounding forest but feel safe walking through a city park.
I won’t deny that there is a risk of death or injury by a black bear, though. In fact, there are sixty documented deaths from black bears in North America from 1900 to 2007.
One documented attack took place in the Warroad district of Minnesota where two men, Maurice Day and Lloyd Hilborne, climbed trees to avoid a mother bear.
The mother dragged Hilborne out of the tree first, and then she alternately bit and mauled each of the two victims until they finally managed to scare her off with a big stick and a jackknife.
Bears are more inclined to chase people who run and climb trees, according to the records posted at the North American Bear Centre. To me this makes sense. Bear cubs scamper up trees when they sense danger, and rushing toward a cub isn’t a good idea.
Surprising, however, researchers have proven that most fatal black bear attacks (versus bluff charges) do not involve cubs. It is only a very mean predatory bear that will kill.
These deaths are extremely rare, however. To put it into perspective, for each person killed by a black bear, there are 45 people killed by dogs and 249 people killed by lightening.
My own encounters with bears also diminish my fear of the animals.
Once I convinced my husband to run an errand while I volunteered at the dump near our cabin.
At closing time, as the last of the vehicles drove off, several bears entered the fenced area.
Standing at the bottom of the hill, without a vehicle and surrounded, all I could do was submit to a paralyzing kind of calm.
The bears observed me, but as I let myself breathe they soon began to relax and went about their business of scrounging for food.
Also a couple of times while hiking I’ve heard bears make a blowing kind of sound, which is said to be their way of expressing nervousness.
I immediately left the area both times, much to the relief of the bears I’m sure.
This week at the bear center I heard about how common it is for bears to provide “scare signals.”
The researchers there talk about capturing screaming cubs in front of bluff-charging sows, but in their many years of field research they have only endured “nips and swats.”
So how do I feel about the large number of bear baiting stations found especially in August through October?
Assuming that the hunters know what they are doing, I think it’s the most humane bear hunting method. The hunter’s stands are close to the bait drum which means shots will be quick and accurate.
Also, I think hunting is important. It helps to sustain healthy animal populations and encourages people to spend time outdoors.
Curator Donna Andrews at the Bear Center also reiterated my belief of the safety of hiking by bear stands. When asked about it, she stated that making a bit of noise when approaching a stand is a good idea, scaring any possible bear away. Once you pass, the bears will shuffle back to the bait.
This leads me to wonder if any adrenaline that accompanies bear hunting is falsely propagated. Bears as a species are not predatory or ferocious. The preferred food of bears is fruit and nuts; they avoid people.
It’s too bad there are so many myths about the animals. If movies, storybooks and cartoons didn’t provide so much false information, I think people could learn to appreciate the qualities of wild bears.
I know far too many people who don’t fully enjoy the forest because of their fear of bears, but the beauty of our woodlands far overpowers the danger.
P.S. I hope to hear from you. E-mail me at: joanna@escape.ca to report about your own cabin and outdoor lifestyle experiences. Whether it’s an unusual bird sighting, some quirky cabin ritual or a trail you’ve just discovered, it’s all exciting to news to me.

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