Black Bears are smarter than you think

Published 11:34 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Every time I see a black bear wander through our property, my heart skips a beat, and I’m in complete awe. How do they survive in our neighborhoods with so many obstacles and misconceptions surrounding them?  


Should you be afraid? Do you envision a bear with bared teeth as the media often portrays? Or do you think of Smokey Bear, trying to prevent forest fires? So back to the question, should you be afraid?

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox


The short answer is no. Seriously, black bears kill less than 1 person a year on average. Dogs, by the way, kill 30-50 people annually in the US. And cows? How about 20 humans a year? 


One of the problems is the media sensationalism of a bear attack. Another is the inaccurate black bear facts that circulate on social media.


What we really need is a paradigm shift in how we relate to all wildlife, especially bears. Coexisting is not hard if we just pay attention and use common sense around these gentle, tolerant animals. 


What are some of the myths regarding black bears? A black bear standing on its hind legs will soon charge you. Nope, it is just trying to get a better look or smell of you. How about playing dead if attacked? Sometimes true for grizzly bear attacks, but never with black bears. Yell and wave your arms and the bear will usually run off. Remember, out of 900,000 black bears living in the United States, there is less than one fatal attack a year.


If you see a black bear, you should be respectful and keep your distance. Bears can smell up to a mile away, so they probably know you are there long before you see them. Don’t leave food around your house or a campsite. And if you do encounter one, back away slowly and be noisy.


As omnivores, they chow down on just about anything. They love berries, nuts, grasses, fish, small mammals, carrion and birdseed. This is why we take our feeders in every night in the winter and don’t put feeders out in the spring, summer or fall.


When winter arrives, they generally stay dormant in a den made from leaves and branches. During this time, they don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom. Fascinating! And while hibernating, they heal their bodies of any minor cuts or injuries. Truly a superpower! 


Bears are smart, with an intelligence rivaling primates.


So why are black bears important? As apex predators, they keep our ecosystem healthy. But how?


Well, to begin with, they clean up dead animal carcasses which can spread disease to other animals. They disperse seeds throughout their territory. If you’ve ever seen bear poop, you know what we mean. It is filled with all kinds of seeds. Bears also love to dig for insects which mix up the soil nutrients to help surrounding plants grow.


How can you help?


  • Please don’t feed bears. The saying a fed bear is a dead bear is true. 
  • Keep your garbage inside or in a bear-proof container.
  • If you hang bird feeders, take them in at night. 
  • Slow down, especially at night when bears are hard to see. Accidentally running into one isn’t good for your car and even worse for the bear.
  • Support conservation groups that protect black bears. And give a positive shout-out to black bears on social media. 


Bears need us as advocates to ensure their survival. Help dispel the misconceptions about this North American native wonder. And the next time you see one, marvel at its beauty and ability to navigate our crowded world. 


Black bears are not the vicious animals portrayed in the media. (Photo by Cassia Rivera)