Where the Wild Things Are: Black Bears

Now that photographic proof confirms the return of grizzlies to the North Cascades, it’s easy to lose let our other resident bruin slip from our minds.

But black bears deserve our full attention. These beautiful beasts inhabit every bit of our state, including many of our most urban neighborhoods.

Geographically, Washington is the smallest of the contiguous states west of the Mississippi, yet we have the largest population. Not of people­—with luck, we’ll leave that dubious honor to California—but of black bears. With an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 black bears, Washington has more bruins than such wilderness-rich states as Idaho (20,000 to 25,000 black bears), Montana (15,000 to 25,000) and Oregon (20,000 to 25,000). In fact, according to The Great Bear Almanac by Gary Brown,  of all 50 states, only Alaska has more black bears than Washington, with more than 100,000 of the bruins roaming that state, mostly in the coastal forests of the southern parts of the state.

Given that high number of black bears, coupled with Washington’s small size and large human population (second largest human population in those 11 western states—coming in behind California), I find it remarkable that there hasn’t been much discussion of a ‘bear problem’ in Washington. More than that, I find it somewhat frightening. I have witnessed too many instances of people under-reacting to bear sightings (as opposed to the typical overreaction to cougar sightings). The problem is one of perception. Maybe its fostered by having grown up with Teddy Bears filling our childhoods, but many folks look at black bears and see them cute, somewhat clumsy critters that are lovable and harmless. I’ve seen hikers walk tossing sandwiches and granola bars at bears in an attempt to draw them into camera range. I’ve seen folks stop their cars and roll down their windows to get a look at bears standing in the road. I’ve heard accounts of people walking up and posing in front of bears—sometimes even taking their children with them!—so that their spouse could snap a picture of them.

Stupid. Eventually the numbers catch up to us and we see a report in the newspaper about some hiker getting mauled, or about bears wandering into a town and dining on garbage cans, pet food, and sometimes on the pets themselves.

I’ve encountered more than three dozen black bears during the 40 years I’ve lived in this state. My first introduction to bears was on that warm August day I described earlier in the introduction section of this book. That encounter in the huckleberry patch between the 12-year-old me and the young black bear remain my most vivid recollection of a bear encounter. But others have also left their mark on my memory.

Nothing gets the heart thumping like the realization that you’re standing between a female bear and her young. Fortunately, when I found myself in this situation in the central Cascades early one September, the youngsters in question were yearling cubs and momma bear—who was undoubtedly ready to toss the juvenile bruins out on their own at any moment—wasn’t too concerned about my presence.

Donna and I were out for a short dayhike along the Pacific Crest Trail north of Chinook Pass. I was researching the route for another guide book, and Donna was along to enjoy the scenery and to keep me company. We chose this section of trail because I knew the huckleberries should be ripe along the way, and I’m a glutton for berries!

We started up the trail early on a Saturday morning, hoping to stay ahead of the hordes of hikers that would surely arrive at the trailhead later that morning. Still, despite our early start, we shared the trailhead with a half dozen other folks out for quiet mountain stroll.  Two gong-ho hikers hit the trail at a near-trot before we caught our packs on, but we were soon on the trail behind them. That first pair was moving fast, and we soon found ourselves hiking along without another person in sight. That’s when we heard it. We weren’t more than a mile and a half up the trail when we heard a crash in the brush below us. We were traversing a 30-degree slope that was covered in huckleberry brambles with just a few trees scattered about. The ruckus was coming from a trio of trees grew close together about 20 yards downslope from the trail. I was a step or two in front of Donna, and when I turned at the noise, I saw nothing. I muttered something about a pair of squirrels fighting over pinecones, but Donna saw something bigger than a squirrel.

“Maybe a raccoon,” I said, antsy to keep moving so we could stay well ahead of the other hikers. Donna wasn’t ready to buy that argument, though, and kept looking at the trees. That’s when the first two hikers came back down the trail at run.

“There’s a bear up there!” they gasped as they screeched to a halt in front of me. About then, Donna picked out the form of a bear cub in the tree branches and caled out, “There’s one down here, too.”

The fast-paced backpackers weren’t as far ahead of us as we had supposed, and had in fact encountered a large black bear just around the corner from were we stood. Knowing that it was undoubtedly the mother of the youngster in the tree below —and slightly behind—us, I knew we should clear out of there as soon as possible. The problem was I didn’t want to flee the trail, leaving the bears as a hazard for other, unsuspecting hikers. As I thought about the situation, two more hikers—an elderly couple with a small dachshund on a leash—came up behind us, making us a group of six. That, I thought, presented odds that not even a mother black bear would readily challenge, so I told the other five to stick close behind me, then I started slowly up the trail toward where the first two hikers had seen the big bear. Not 20 yards up the trail, I saw a black rump retreating from the trail, heading straight up the hill. I stopped, and watched. The sow slowly climbed about 15 yards above the trail, then turned into a rich patch of huckleberries and began to eat. Right beside it, I saw, was another, smaller bear. The sow munched a few berries, then slowly ambled away, heading back toward the direction we had come, but angling uphill away from the trail. We watched the mother. The cub—a big, strapping yearling—watched us for moment, then grabbed a mouthful of berries, too, before taking off after momma. Suddenly, we heard crashing below the trail once more, and watched as the first cub dropped out of its hiding spot in the tree and raced up the slope to rejoin its sibling and mother.

Managing encounters

This encounter could have unfolded in several different ways, and we were lucky to have had it play out as it did. If the elderly couple with the small dog had been the first to round the corner and come face to face with the matronly bruin, the dog might have upset the bear and prompted it to act more aggressively. If the cubs had been that year’s cubs instead of yearling cubs, the mother would have been more protective and those first two hikers would have been attacked when they turned and ran. But as easy as it is to speculate about what could have happened, my experience has been that more often than not, bears are even less interested than you in getting into a tussle.

Those three bears were the fifth, sixth and seventh Donna and I had seen that year. In July, Donna and I crossed paths with a solitary bear along the Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier National Park while on a biking and hiking outing. And in late August, we spotted a large male browsing through the berry patches on Mother Mountain near Spray Park on the northwest side of Mount Rainier. And late in the spring, while visit my folks at their home in the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington, we sat on the deck and watched a couple bears amble through their backyard, within feet of the house.

Seven bears in a single hiking season. A remarkable number considering the fact that in the previous 20 years, I had seen roughly 15 black bears in the wild—less than one per year on average.

I was thrilled to see so many wild predators but also a bit concerned, not so much for myself as for my fellow backpackers—and for the bears (when bears and humans encounter each other, the bears are typically the losers in the end).

Bears are classified as omnivores, which technically means they eat both plants and animal matter. But in realistic terms, it means they are opportunistic feeders—they’ll eat whatever is easy to get at, be it plant, animal or Powerbar. Generally, vegetation makes up the bulk of a black bear’s diet, since plants are the easiest, and most common, source of food in a bear’s range. But when the opportunity presents itself, bears will eat small animals, bugs, and even large ungulates. And when dried turkey tetrazini and M&M-rich trail mix are available, they’ll gorge themselves on these, too.

So, what hikers need to do is keep their food out of reach of bears. Simple as that. Unfortunately, too many backpackers fail to take in account the bear’s incredible resourcefulness. Still others fail to take into account the bears at all. I’ve seen hikers eating in the tents, dirty pots left lying in the middle of camp all night, and food bags hung a mere foot or two off the ground—essentially at mouth level for a roving bear—right next to tents.

That’s not the end of it, though. The problem doesn’t go away after a bear ransacks a poorly protected camp. Bears aren’t dumb—indeed, they are generally quick-witted, remarkably resourceful, and have long memories. Once a bear learns that hikers carry tasty treats, they begin to associate all our colorful packs and nylon stuff sacks with food. The bear will be watching future hikers in that area, looking for ways to getting an easy meal from the portable pantries we call backpacks.

Fortunately, humans can minimize the problems be simply being aware of the bears and understanding how and why they behave as they do. By taking the time to safely bag and hang all your food and scented items—safely meaning at least 10 to 12 feet off the ground, and 10 to 12 feet from the nearest tree truck—you’ll cut your chances of an encounter to next to nothing. If you also do your cooking at least 100 feet from your tent, and keep all food and scents (like perfume, deodorant, soaps, etc.) out of the tent, and off your clothing and your skin, the odds of an encounter drop even more.

So plan well and a bear sighting can be a thing to cherish and enjoy. Plan poorly and you’ll be sorry you ever left the security of your backyard.




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