Saturday, May 28, 2005

Backpacking into Black Bear Habitat

Standing up on its hind legs allows a bear to get more information from its senses of smell, sight and hearing. It's a sign of curiosity, not agression. However, if you come across a mother and it's cub like in the lower picture, steer clear and be sure to make lots of noise so she knows where you are. Posted by Hello

Over the years I have been hiking and backpacking I've had my occasional encounter with a black bear. The first time surprises and often scares the hiker . . . especially if you are hiking alone and you are hiking nude. You suddenly feel very vulnerable when a black bear sticks it's head out of a thicket on the slope above you and looks in your general direction.

The general advice in dealing with bears is to give them ample warning ahead of time . . . some say attach a small bell to your pack and the tinkling of the bell will allow a bear to get out of your way long before you can come across it, perhaps surprising it into defensive behavior. Others say the bell is nothing more than a dinner bell for the bear.

Whatever you believe, I hold that you should give the bear some chance to get out of your way as preferable to surprising the bear. Bears are shy by nature and will get out of your way . . . but you've got to make some noise. A bell is a little to much for me . . . I just walk noisily and occasionally talk to myself of my hiking partner (if I have one that day).

If encountered by a bear . . . do not stare it down. Make yourself bigger and back slowly out the way you came in. The bear doesn't want an encounter . . . and you needn't push for one by playing 'alpha male' with a 300 pound black bear.

Of course, we all worry about our own defense. My best defense, if it ever came to needing to protect myself from an aggressive bear . . . is my hiking staff . . . a good, solid piece of wood with a wicked point on the end. I also carry a hunting knife and bear deterrent spray . . . but those items are a last ditch measure. I'd much rather give up the terrain to the bear and back away slowly.

So the rest of this article is for those of you who wonder what the signs of bears in the area are. It's interesting and you can find the signs.

Where to Look for Bear Sign

Black bear habitat can include swamps, mountain streams, and woods (especially pinyon-juniper woodland, aspen forests, and oak woodlands).

Look for bear sign along mountain streams and in woodlands habitat.

Bear Tracks

Bears are pacers — wide-bodied animals that move both legs on one side of the body at a time (alternating both right limbs then both left). They are plantigrade walkers (like people) — the heel of the back foot lands flat on each step. The track of a bear's back foot looks very similar to a human footprint, although a bear's foot is wider and shorter. Bears have five toes on both the front and rear feet. The "big" toe on a bear is the outer toe. Note: the heel pad of the front foot, the claws, and the fifth (inside) toe often don't register in a track.

Black Bear front footprint; 4-1/2 inches (length) x
4 inches (width)
Posted by Hello

Black Bear rear footprint; 6-7/8 inches (length) x
3-1/2 inches (width)
Posted by Hello

Bear tracks in the spring snow at Tonga Ridge. Note the pacer stride . . . both legs on the side moving at the same time

The distance between the outer edges of black bear footprints (called trail width) is 14 inches. A black bear's stride (measured from the tip of the foremost toe of one foot to the tip of the same toe of the other foot) is 18 inches when walking and 2-5 feet when it is running. During a slow walk, the bear's hind foot overlaps the front foot; during a fast walk, the hind foot oversteps (lands in front of) the front foot.

Black bears often follow well-established trails. Wide double ruts formed in the grass or the ground are a good indication of a bear trail. In wooded areas, these trails often go under obstructions.

Bears (like people) break twigs and sticks as they walk; watch the trail for broken sticks, then use a magnifier to find closely spaced cracks or bending along twigs, indicating the round, soft footprints made by a bear.

Bear Scat (droppings)

Black bear scat (when firm) is tubular, between 1-3/8 inches and 1-1/2 inches in diameter. (Grizzly bear scat measures 2-1/4 inches.) Because black bears are mostly vegetarian (eating grass, roots, pine nuts, berries, buds, leaves, bark and nuts), bear scat often contains plant matter. Also look for the remains of other common black bear food: insects, eggs, birds, mice, rats, chipmunks, ground squirrels, fish, honeycomb, and carrion. Of course, black bears are known for eating just about anything they can find in a garbage can, so even the unusual item may be found in bear scat. Black bear scat has been known to contain tin cans, pizza boxes, watches, tent screening, zippers, motorcycle chains and even crushed hubcaps!

Bear scat: between 1-3/8 inches and 1-1/2 inches in diameter Posted by Hello

Feeding Signs

Watch for rocks and logs that have been turned over or torn apart in a bear's search for ants and beetles. Anthills that have been scooped out are another sign of a bear's presence in an area. Black bears also dig for small animals and plant roots.

Bear Trees

Besides climbing, black bears often use trees as territory markers and rubbing posts, as well as a food source. Known as "bear trees," these are often found in a prominent spot along a trail.

Watch for claw marks in the soft, smooth bark of climbing trees, and for tooth marks where black bears have used their incisors to scrape the cambium layer of feeding trees. Black bears will often bite and pull off strips of bark on particularly tasty trees like pine, spruce and fir. High claw and tooth marks serve as signposts, advertising the size of a bear and indicating a challenge to rivals.

Bears love a good scratch as much as the next guy, and will rub against trees, bushes, and stumps to satisfy that itch. An established bear tree reveals years of rubs, scratches and bites, and may have long hairs embedded in the cracks.

Other Black Bear Sign

Black bear dens can be found in hollow logs, under fallen trees, or in natural rock caves. Use your nose! Black bears are reported to have a powerful "animal" smell which can linger long after the animal has left the area.


A Field Guide to Animal Tracks — Olaus J. Murie

The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Western US — Janine M. Benyus

Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking — Tom Brown, Jr. with Brandt Morgan

Track Finder — Dorcas Miller

Pacific Coast Mammals — Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen

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