When a bear meets a person, it often reacts as it would to another bear. Understanding this behavior is the best way to avoid negative interactions.
Bears are Predictable
Bears exhibit predictable behavior. This trait can be beneficial to people if they come into contact with bears.
Bears aren’t Boogiemen
Bears are not malicious. Except for extremely rare predatory behavior, they are not out to “get” people. unless they are forced to be around humans to be near a food source, they usually choose to avoid us.
Black and Brown Bears Have Evolved Different Strategies For Survival
The adaptations of both species have molded their relationships – and reactions – to people. Black bears are excellent climbers. When a black bear is threatened it usually runs from the threat or goes up a tree. With cubs out of danger, female black bears don’t have to make vigorous defenses – risking potential injury. Although black bears tend to retreat from people, they are still incredibly strong animals that can cause injuries. Brown bears live in coastal forests but have also learned to exploit treeless habitat. They are more likely than black bears to defend themselves when threatened. A brown bear’s first line of defense is to retreat, but it can be very aggressive towards other bears and people it perceives as threats.
Bears Can Be Very Social
Bears are often described as asocial when compared to wolves, chimps, or lions. This may be true when making comparisons, however, to use the term asocial to describe bears is incorrect. While bears do not join in hunts, they can coexist in very close proximity to each other. The bears of a region are usually familiar with one another and meetings consist of complex social exchanges.
Bears are Not Territorial
Being territorial means keeping other members of your species away from a given area. Wolves and primates are territorial – bears aren’t. Bears, like people, share home ranges. This mutual use of land and resources is a basis for bear social behavior.
Bears Live in a Dominance Hierarchy
Mature males are at the top of the hierarchy, and sub-adults and cubs at the bottom. Bears establish and maintain their social position and place in the hierarchy by acting aggressively. Single females and females with cubs are almost always submissive to mature males but have a loose hierarchy within their own group. This hierarchy is based on age, size, and temperament – some bears are more aggressive than others.
Bears Defend Personal Space
Bears, like humans and other animals, have a critical space – an area around them that they may defend. Once you have entered a bear’s critical space you have forced the bear to act – either to run away or be aggressive. The size of the critical space is different for every bear and situation.
Bears Don’t Share
Bears do not share food. Female bears do not present food to cubs – the cubs must take it. When a female kills a fish or a moose calf she immediately begins to eat. The cubs fight among themselves and with their mother to get what they can. If what they grab cannot be immediately consumed – like a moose leg or a fish head – the piece will be vigorously defended. This behavior accounts for some of the aggressive and defensive interactions that take place with people, especially when they disturb feeding bears.
Bears Habituate, or Become Accustomed, to People Just Like They Do To Other Bears
Because plentiful food resources can be localized – salmon in a stream or berries on a mountainside – bears have evolved behavior that allows them to tolerate each other at close distances. This behavior is transferred to their relationship with humans. If they are not shot or harassed, bears habituate to people the same way they do to each other.
Bears React to New Things in Their Enviroment
New objects or situations often frighten bears. Behaviorists call this “strange object response”. After an initial fright, bears will often investigate what alarmed them. This is not an aggressive act and shouldn’t be regarded as one.
Bears are Not Always Aware
Bears, particularly adult brown bears, are not always aware of what is going on around them. They are at the top of the food chain and have few concerns. A big bear following a trail doesn’t always look ahead. A bear can literally blunder into an unsuspecting person.
Bear Behavior is from “Living in Harmony with Bears” by Derek Stonorov, published by the National Audubon Society and used with their permission.