Bears are America’s last great woods monsters. They’re the reason why we’re scared to sleep in the forest, why we pack heat in National Parks and why we have to watch Legends of the Fall every time it’s on. Unfortunately, we tend to think we know more about them than we actually do. And that compromises the most effective weapon against bear attacks – the human brain.
Last weekend, Mrs. BittelMeThis and I spent some time in Shenandoah National Park. In about two hours, we kicked up four black bears (and one fat and sassy rattlesnake). Not once did a bear show interest in us. We were never threatened, charged or mauled – all this despite the fact that one of them was a cub, indicating mama was near.
In fact, the animals were far more concerned with the grubs and insects under rocks than the snacks in our pack or our supple pink skin. (Hey, I moisturize.) And anyone with knowledge of black bears will tell you this is precisely the way it should be, the way it most often is. (The bears, not the skin.)
A black bear has no natural business with a human. Contrary to bad movies and Gary Larson cartoons, bears – black bears, especially – do not smell humans and think PREY. They should smell us and think: BAD NEWS, BEARS.
Still, everybody’s heard of Timothy Treadwell (the “Grizzly Man”) or heard an anecdotal story about bear attacks. Such sensationalized events easily crowd out the relative likelihood of you being eaten by a bear. And rather than bore you with the old you’re-this-many-more-times-likely-to-be-struck-by-lightning stat, how about a short list of North American animals far more likely to snuff out your AllSpark?
From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) database, via Outside:
#7. Fire ants
#2. Hornets, wasps & bees
#1. Livestock, including cows, horses & pigs
So the next time you hear, “My pit bull wouldn’t hurt a fly!” remember, it’s far more likely to kill you than a grizzly. (Also, never trust a pony.)
The first thing to remember about everything you’ve ever filed away under “bear facts” in your lizard brain is that black bears and grizzly bears are very different beasts.
The second thing you need to remember if you’re confronted by a bear is that grizzly bears [Ursos arctos horribilis] are actually a subspecies of the brown bear [Ursos arctos]. Another popular brown bear subspecies is the Kodiak [Ursus arctos middendorffi]. Actually, you probably don’t need to remember this for safety reasons as they’re all capable of ruining your day. Just know that throughout this post I’ll be using the word “grizzly” in place of “brown bear” because average people don’t give a cuss and, quite frankly, the word “grizzly” is so, so much cooler than the word “brown.”
The third thing to remember is that you are far more likely to run into an American black bear [Ursus americanus] than a grizzly. And that’s the best news of the bunch.
Historically, black bear range covered or at least dipped into every contiguous US state, all Canadian provinces and most of northern Mexico. Unfortunately, our forefathers were scared of the dark, so that range has been greatly reduced in the last few hundred years. You can however still find black bears throughout Canada, Appalachia, the Rockies, and the Ozarks. By contrast, you’re only likely to spot a grizzly in that corridor of Rocky wilderness reaching from Yellowstone to Alaska. (FYI: grizzlies tend to stick to the mountains, browns to the coast. Luckily, Kodiaks are stranded on just a few islands up in Alaska where there’s zero chance of them ripping our heads off. Oh, wait.)
Despite the disproportionate distribution, most of the stuff you’ve heard about bears refers to the less common grizzly. And that includes the conventional wisdom that there’s no more dangerous animal on earth than a mother bear and her cubs.
(Don’t get down on yourself. Lots of people don’t know the difference between black bears and grizzlies or where either live. Like Bill Bryson’s publisher, who for some inexplicable reason put a big old grizzly on the cover of a book about the Appalachian Trail.)
You could say it all comes down to claws. While grizzlies have straight, four-inch, the-better-to-dice-you-with blades, black bears have short, curved, two-inch claws adapted to climbing trees. Most importantly, so do their cubs.
In fact, black bear cubs are expert climbers from a young age and will hit the timber at a moment’s notice. So if shit gets real, the mama black bear can focus on protecting herself – usually by high-tailing it – knowing the key to the next generation is stowed safely in a sugar maple.
Grizzlies can’t say the same. For one, though they can climb, they’re not nearly as adept as black bears. Two, the weight of adult she-grizzlies also goes against them – though if your goal is to avoid mauling, I wouldn’t bring this one up. Finally, there are a lot less climbin’ trees in much of their favored habitats, such as the coast, tundra, plains and subalpine meadows. All of this leads to a mama equipped and inclined to fight to the death for her young.
Let’s get some numbers from Stephen Herrero, bear attack authority – which is the best possible kind of authority to be, by the way:
While there are about 15 times as many black bears as grizzlies, grizzlies kill about twice as many people, likely because they evolved in open plains and rarely climb trees, Dr. Herrero said. Roughly half of grizzly attacks involve mothers protecting cubs.
Long story short, grizzlies with babies are overprotective hellhounds. You should do your best to avoid them. (More on that in Part 2.)
Black bear mamas are fleet-footed pacifists. You could just about charge one with your pants down and live to Tweet about it.
DISCLAIMER: You should know by now I’m not suggesting you disrobe and attack wildlife. All wild animals are dangerous and, to some extent, unpredictable. When tourists act like imbeciles bad things happen. And animals often get the worst end of the deal. (Ahem, Part 4.)
But every once in a while, an idiot gets its wings.
Forget about all this mommy talk. Everybody knows that the only information you need to remember about bears is to play dead if confronted. Right?
Ahem. Not only is this statement false – it might just get you killed. Find out why in Part 2: Bear Myths – Playing Dead.
Image credits: Mama & cub