On the Trails with…Black Bear

by Susan Stauffer, Friends’ Trail Coordinator

Black Bears are occasionally seen in forested locations on the Refuge as they primarily reside in forested habitats. In Washington State, it is estimated that the Black Bear population is around 25,000 to 30,000. Black Bears are omnivores, i.e., they eat both plants and animals, although their diet is primarily vegetation.

They den during the winter months when food is scarce and the weather worsens. However, some male bears may remain active during the winter in the coastal Pacific Northwest, while the pregnant females den to give birth to their cubs. The female usually gives birth in January and nurses her cubs in her sleep for a few months after birth. She will then hibernate the next winter with her yearling cubs as the cubs remain with the mother for over a year. During the nursing of her cubs, the mother will lose 40% of her weight. Thus, she only has cubs every other year both to put her weight back on and to care for her cubs in their first year.

Almost as exciting as actually seeing a black bear is finding evidence of their presence on the trails. On muddy trails one may find a bear print which will usually show five digits with large footpads for the hind feet and small footpads for the front. Often one will see marks on trees that are called “bear trees”! Young bears often climb trees leaving claw marks behind. In addition to claw marks, it is also likely that chewing marks, or rubbing marks will be visible on trees. Bears who rub their thick matted winter coat against in the Spring often leave fur in the bark and sap. Then there is bear scat to find on the trails which varies in appearance with the seasons reflecting the food the bear is eating.

Male Black Bears are solitary animals, but female bears are usually seen with their cubs. Bears tend to avoid people and should be treated with respect if seen and should only observed from a distance of at least 100 yards. Black Bears usually avoid people. Mother bears are extremely protective. AVOID an encounter with a bear. If you do encounter a bear, or want to avoid an encounter when hiking, ALWAYS make your presence known. Talking is the easiest way to broadcast your presence.

If you have a close encounter here are some tips: STOP, remain calm. If a bear approaches you stand up wave your hands above your head and talk in a low voice. DO NOT throw anything at a bear, avoid direct eye contact, try to scare it by clapping your hands, stomping your feet and then yelling louder if it continues to advance. Bears are nearsighted, so sometimes it takes them a little while to realize it is a human they are approaching and once they do realize this they almost always tend to run off into the bushes. DO NOT RUN from a bear unless you are absolutely certain you can reach safety. Bears can run 35 mph and climbing a tree is not an escape as a bear can easily follow you up a tree given they are good tree climbers!

Enjoy your wilderness adventures, just remember we are in the habitat or “home” of wild creatures, therefore we are the intruders and we should show them the respect they deserve. Try to minimize your intrusions into their lives. Happy Trails, get out and explore the Refuge!