I want to start this off by telling you how extremely rare it is to ever be attacked by any bear, let alone a black bear. To put this in perspective, 74 people in North American have been killed by black bears since 1900. If you double that number you get the total number of black and brown bear fatal attacks in North America since 1900. In short, it is extremely unlikely. You are far more likely to crash your car and die while driving to bear country. Or to be struck by lightning while hiking. However, there is something about the bear which captures our imagination like no other predator. The idea of a 300-pound killing machine roaming the woods is the stuff of nightmares. They are also extremely charismatic animals, provide delicious meat, and serve an important role in the food chain.
The population of black bears in the lower peninsula of Michigan is currently somewhere around 2000, while the population in the upper peninsula is around 10,000. In the lower, they can be found regularly as far south as Clare and occasionally further south. While they are normally very secretive animals that are afraid of humans, they can pose a threat in rare situations. As hunters, we may spend more time in bear danger than others because we are typically moving silently, covering our scent, and are often in the presence of a dead animal. While these factors increase our odds of a bear encounter than your average camper, it is still extremely rare.
Why Black Bears Attack
Black bear attacks generally occur a bit differently than brown bear attacks. For one, black bear sows (females) generally won’t attack if you get too close to their cubs. This is not to say it can’t happen, but there are very few reports of this ever happening. Black bears typically tree their cubs if danger is nearby which is their defense mechanism.
They typically attack because they have gotten too used to people, are startled, want your food, or in rare cases view you as food. The latter is known as a predatory attack and is the most dangerous type of bear attack.
The best thing you can do is to avoid bears in the first place. When camping in bear country hang your food, use bear lockers, or store it in your car. Ideally, you don’t ever want to sleep with food in your tent. When cooking try to do so as far away from your campsite as possible.
Pay attention to bear sign you see in the woods. If you start seeing bear tracks, fresh scat, and torn-up trees you are likely in an area being used by bears and should increase your level of alertness.
If you are successful when hunting, gut the animal and then move the carcass as far away from the gut pile as quickly as possible. A predator is going to go for the guts first and you don’t want to be around when they do. If you cannot immediately get the animal back to your vehicle or are camping, then you will need to hang the carcass or meat the same way you would with your camp food. Again, don’t hang the meat or carcass within 200 yards of your camp.
Surviving An Attack
You’ve done everything right, stayed alert, paid attention to your surroundings and the unthinkable is happening. A black bear is squaring up on you and huffing and barking. What do you do? First of all, don’t panic. There is a constant in the mind of people who survive deadly situations and that is they remain pragmatic and keep thinking of how to survive.
While it can be difficult in a situation where a bear seems threatening, you need to determine if the bear is acting defensive or predatory. A defensive bear will be huffing and barking loudly. It may swat the ground. The bear may engage in a series of bluff charges wherein after the barking and swatting it charges toward you and turns away before reaching you. If the bear seems to be acting defensively you should make yourself appear as large as possible, talk to the bear in a stern voice, and if possible, slowly back away while keeping your gaze towards the bear. Don’t look it in the eyes, but don’t look away either.
A predatory bear, on the other hand, will typically not engage in visible or audible signs of aggression. It may still huff and swat the ground but it will do so in a very subtle and quiet manner. You will likely not notice it. It will stalk you and then move in on a full charge. There will be no bluff charge. If you suddenly find a bear inside your tent or camp with no warning or very close to you it is likely this type of attack. In this case, you will need to fight back with any means available to you. Bear spray and firearms are the preferred weapons for bear defense, but rocks, sticks, or anything else can also work. If you do not possess the means to kill the bear, then you will need to show it that you are not defenseless and the cost of killing you will be greater than it had planned.
A Quick Note On Weapons
As hunters, we are especially susceptible to the idea that we would be better off in a bear attack with a firearm than bear spray. There is a certain amount of machismo on display here and most of us are comfortable killing large animals with guns. However, in an actual bear attack, you are dealing with a 300-pound predator which can move 30mph in an instant. Unless you have close combat firearm training, you will not be able to draw your weapon, aim it, and shoot to kill in the time it takes the bear to reach you. Even if you hit the bear, your shot will be rushed in this situation and if you just injure the bear it will become much more aggressive. The bear will know you have hurt it and will increase its level of aggression exponentially.
The beauty of bear spray, on the other hand, is that if you use it on a bear, the animal won’t feel injured or know you hurt it. It will ideally just know that it’s uncomfortable and retreat away. Bear spray typically does not provoke increased aggression from a bear. Also, because it sprays out in a cloud up to 30 feet away, it is easier to aim in the right direction under pressure.
My advice, and what I do, is to always carry bear spray and a firearm on my person. If a bear gets too close or is bluff charging this can be a good time to deploy the spray. As a last resort, the firearm could be your lifeline in the rare scenario that the bear does not respond to the spray or commences an attack.
The idea of a bear attack is terrifying. However, don’t let it keep you out of the woods. Most of us live in a state with black bears and they make the wilderness what it is: wild. Learning some common-sense techniques to avoid a bear encounter in the first place will pay dividends while hunting. In the rare event a bear attack happens, knowing what to do, and having bear spray in addition to a pistol can ensure that you walk away from it with a crazy story to tell instead of becoming food. Just remember, that your odds of seeing a black bear, let alone being attacked by one are exceedingly rare.