Increasing Black Bear Population Means AR Residents Should Be “Bear Aware” – by Benjamin Waldrum

By Guest Contributor

First posted on 11-21-2008

LITTLE ROCK – People should be “bear aware” of the hazards posed by increasing black bear populations in Arkansas even though attacks are rare, says Rebecca McPeake

“Most bears avoid direct contact with humans,” she says. “Bear attacks are so rare that a person is 180 times more likely to die from a bee sting or 160,000 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than die from a bear attack.”

Recovery efforts have increased black bear populations in Arkansas from slightly less than 50 in the 1930s to an estimated 3,000 today. Many reside in the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests in northwestern Arkansas and the White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arkansas, and efforts continue to repopulate black bears in the Felsenthal Wildlife Refuge near Crossett. Bears can be found in surrounding locations with reportedly a good-sized bear population less than 20 miles from Little Rock.

Encounters with Bears

When in bear habitat, be alert. Look for paw prints, droppings, claw marks on trees and ripped-open logs, and evidence of digging. Rare bear attacks are usually made by a bear that has fed on garbage, been hand-fed or approached by humans, or was in poor physical condition due to old age, disease or wounds.

“A bear’s natural fear of people can be eroded over time as it learns to associate people with food,” says McPeake.

Black bears are smart and often unpredictable.

“No hard and fast rules can be applied when dealing with an animal as intelligent as a bear,” says McPeake.

Bear encounters are classified in two ways: surprise – or defensive – encounters, or predatory encounters, when a bear is hunting for food.

McPeake has recommendations for a surprise encounter:

* Stay calm and stand your ground, says McPeake, or move away slowly. Try to intimidate the bear by shouting, banging objects together, or hitting it with a rock or a stick. Unless an attack is imminent, playing dead is not recommended.

* Do not run – the bear may give chase. Bears may appear slow and awkward, but can reach speeds of 30 mph.

* An encounter with a female and her cubs can be dangerous. Never approach lone cubs. “Do not assume cubs have been abandoned,” says McPeake. “The mother is probably nearby and ready to defend her cubs if you approach them.”

In case of a predatory encounter:

* Playing dead will worsen the situation. “Fight back as aggressively as possible,” says McPeake. Yell, scream, and strike the bear in the eyes and snout if possible.

* Capsaicin, or pepper, spray has been used effectively to deter black bears. “Bear sprays should only be applied directly to the bear and in its face if possible,” says McPeake. Do not apply this spray to equipment, as it will attract bears.

Preventing Bear Problems

The best strategy for preventing problems with bears is to avoid close contact, says McPeake. As a rule, avoid getting closer than 100 yards to a black bear – although there is no guaranteed minimum safe distance.

Here are some other tips for preventing problem encounters with bears:

* When camping, keep food out of the tent, wash dishes, and maintain a clean campsite. Store food and in airtight containers and away from where bears can smell or gain access to it. Burn or store garbage; never bury it.

* When hiking, make noise – talk, whistle, or sing – to avoid surprising a bear. Leave the dogs at home, as they can provoke an attack.

* Confine livestock in buildings and pens at night. Pick fruit from orchards as soon as possible, as it may attract bears when wild foods are scarce. Pens, doghouses, beehives, and crops should be kept at least 50 yards away from wooded areas.

* Keep garbage, pet foods, bird feed, and other foods away from bears. Trash left out overnight gives bears time to locate and raid it.

For more information on black bears, talk with your county Extension agent or search for Black Bears: Biology and Habits (FSA9086) at The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.