Bear Necessities

Bears drinking margaritas at backyard jacuzzis?! Bear populations are rising. To fight back, play dead or hand over your drink?

Five Figures to Consider

300,000 black bears (ursus americanus) in the the lower 48 states
1,400 - 1,700 brown bears (ursus arctos horribilis) in the U.S.
5,195 black bear sightings in Connecticut in recent 11-month period
20 miles is the distance black bears can smell
35 mph is the top running speed of a black bear

It used to be a novelty to see a bear outside of the zoo. Now, not so much. You’ve got to have a bear in your backyard taking a jacuzzi and lapping up a margarita in order to make the evening news. In a recent 11-month period in Connecticut, there were 5,195 reported black bear sightings. This in a state where bears were once extirpated. Now the creatures are tearing down bird feeders, knocking over garbage cans, gorging on beekeepers’ brood boxes, spooking hikers, bikers and walkers and, in one case, killing the family donkey. Bear populations are up across the country, increasing human-bear interactions. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.

If you see a bear outside of Alaska, Wyoming, Montana or Idaho, chances are it is a black bear, a uniquely North American bear that appears across the U.S. in black, brown, cinnamon and even albino white fur. The black bear reached its population nadir around 1900 due to a 25%-35% habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting. Since the 1980s in particular, the species has made a strong comeback reappearing in states from which it had disappeared, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma and Missouri. In fact, now that the black bear population has reached 300,000 in the lower 48 states, some local governments are more worried about population control than protection. One reason for the resurgence, particularly in the east, is that farmland has returned to forest. Brown bears, also known as grizzly bears – which is confusing since black bears can also be brown – number between 1,400 and 1,700 in the U.S. and appear in 45 other countries around the world. They can be distinguished by a hump at the shoulders, and they grow to a maximum of nearly 1,500 pounds, almost three times the maximum size of a black bear. The Yellowstone area grizzly was recently removed from the threatened species list, and Wyoming and Idaho plan to offer their first grizzly bear hunts since 1974 this fall.

Last week in northwest Connecticut, a mother followed her five-year-old daughter out to the car in her home’s driveway and came face to face with a young bear. She and her daughter quickly returned to the house and began aggressively ringing their bear bells to frighten the animal away. Alas, the bear was not bothered by the bells and took its time leaving the property. Last month near Grand Junction, Colorado, a bear picked up a 5-year-old girl in its teeth and dragged her until the girl’s mother came out shouting and frightened the bear. Both of these encounters occurred in exurban environments, which black bears prefer even to rural forests. University of Connecticut researchers found that bear density in Connecticut was highest in areas with 6 to 50 houses per square kilometer, presumably because that environment gives bears access to both forest cover and additional food sources provided by humans, especially garbage. Yum!

So if bear bells don’t work, what does? First, don’t attract bears to your home. That means reconsidering bird feeders, open composters, fruit trees, outdoor grills and garbage cans. If you must feed the birds, only do it in the coldest months. Though even in New England, bears have been known to raid bird feeders in January and February. (Black bears are not classified as hibernators, though they do “den” in cold months.) There are expensive bear-proof bird feeders available, but their scent still attracts (frustrated) bears to your yard. If a bear visits your bird feeder, wildlife officials advise that you remove the feeder. Avoid open composting, especially of cooked food and fruit rinds. Pick up rotten fruit from fruit trees, or remove the trees all together as one Aspen, Colorado, homeowner did with six serviceberry trees that attracted bears to her yard. Clean your outdoor grill after you use it, and keep outdoor garbage in bear-proof containers. Black bears can reportedly smell distances of up to 20 miles.

And if you see a bear in the wild? Don’t run. You look like prey when you do, and the bear will outrun you. Black bears can run 35 miles per hour. Instead, make yourself look big. Wave your arms, stand on high ground and talk to the bear. Keep your eyes on the bear, though you should not make eye contact. If you can, walk away sideways. Black bears are less aggressive than grizzly bears, though they have been known to attack and kill humans. If a black bear becomes aggressive toward you, bear spray is effective. You can buy it from REI or on Amazon. It’s a good idea to carry it with you when you’re hiking in bear territory. You will probably never need to know this, but if a black bear attacks, you should fight tooth and nail. If a grizzly attacks, play dead.  Bear bells do alert bears to your presence on a hiking trail, but they also scare away the birds you might want to see.

One more bear fact? While black bears are mainly hunted in the U.S. as a trophy sport, they are also poached for export to China where the bile of the black bear’s gall bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Oh, and that black fur on the tall hats worn by Buckingham Palace guards? That also comes from the ursus americanus and is supplied annually by Canada. Now you’re ready to take the Bear Quiz.

More Americans are killed by farm animals each year than by bears, yet we’d sooner feed a horse a carrot than a bear a margarita. Practice bear-smart habits to keep yourself – and the bears – safe.


Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Five Valleys Audubon Society, The IUCN Global Species Program, National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service