What to do if You Meet a Black Bear on a Hiking Trail (or City Street)

A groggy Glendale Bear emerges from a culvert trap in the Angeles National Forest | Photo courtesy California Department of Fish and Game

Vaz Terdandenyan probably didn't expect sudden internet fame when he walked down his driveway April 10, texting his boss that he was going to be late for work. But he got that 15 minutes anyway, as a local news helicopter caught his brief and frightening encounter with Meatball, a.k.a. "The Glendale Bear".

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The bear was unaggressive. The State Fish and Game folks successfully tranquilized and relocated him to the San Gabriel Mountains, the bear pausing only to exclaim "#roadtrip!" from his Twitter account.

The bear earned his nickname by raiding local buildings for food, his haul including a freezer full of meatballs. Locals cheered on the bear's continuing exploits during his sojourn in the Glendale area, some expressing mild sadness at the bear's capture. Though the story ended well for all concerned, both Terdandenyan and Meatball were lucky. Bears that start to develop a taste for food provided by people pose a distinct danger to those people, and to themselves as well.

Of the three species of bears native to North America, only black bears are found in California. Despite the name, not all black bears are black. There are brown black bears in the state, and they're often mistaken for grizzlies. But grizzlies were killed off in California in the 1920s, which ecological tragedy certainly made California bear interactions far safer since.

California's black bear population has doubled in recent decades, with much of the growth in range bordering urban areas, which are themselves growing. That means more interactions betwen people and bears. Wild black bears do kill about two people a year in North America, nearly all of the fatalities involving male bears hunting us for food. Such attacks mainly happen in Canada and Alaska, according to bear biologists, and solo hikers or people in pairs tend to be targeted rather than groups. Disturbingly, such bears on the hunt tend to be very quiet, stalking their quarry until they get a chance to attack.

California black bears are still far more mellow than their northern cousins, thankfully, and aside from the occasional bluff charge for a backpack full of jerky tend to be shy and retiring. Bear attacks are rare in this state: Fish and Game reports 12 known wild bear attacks in California since 1980 not including one last year in the Tahoe Sierra. The last Californian killed by a wild bear died in the 19th century, and the bear at fault was a grizzly. Wild black bears generally pose very little threat to Californians. There's even a documented case of a California bear actually saving a man's life from a puma attack, which evens the score a bit: Black bears saving Californians: 1; Black bears killing Californians: 0. Of the 13 "attacks" mentioned above -- which include incidents in which the bear injured someone but may not have intended to do so -- at least eight involved bears that had grown accustomed to eating "people food."

But as our cities and bear country continue to intermingle, your chances of meeting a bear habituated to human presence increases, and it's bears like Meatball that are most unpredictable, and most likely to hurt people.

Fortunately, the best way to survive an encounter with the bear you've just bumped into is pretty much the same whether you're in the Sierra Nevada or San Fernando Valley. And with any luck, the bear will survive the encounter too. These tips are compiled from National Park Service and state Fish and Game guidelines.

If you meet up with a black bear in California,

  1. Remain calm and move slowly. In most black bear encounters in California, the bear will take off as soon as it sees you. A more curious bear may stand on its hind legs to see you better, but this is not necessarily aggressive behavior.
  2. If the bear is cornered, back off slowly to give it room to escape. Don't turn your back on it, but do back up a few yards as calmly and slowly as you can. This is especially true if you meet a sow with small cubs
  3. Pick up any children with you, and leash your dog. Better yet, don't bring your dog to bear country. Put small kids on your shoulders: this protects them and makes you look bigger.
  4. Make noise. Talk, sing, yell. Bang metal pots. Let the bear know that you're human and intimidating. Wave your arms.
  5. Do not run. Not even if the bear charges at you. If you can see the bear, it's not stalking you, and it's merely trying to intimidate you with a bluff charge. Running is prey behavior, and may encourage the bear to attack you for real. Black bears can run at 30 miles per hour and can climb trees. Stand your ground, and retreat only slowly, facing the animal the entire time.
  6. If the bear actually attacks you, fight back. Throw rocks, thwap it with tree branches, punch and kick if it comes to that.

Very few people reading this will ever be in a position where these steps become important, even those of us who are avid mountain hikers. But of us have things we can do -- or not do -- to make California safer for people and bears alike:

  1. Never feed bears. As the saying goes, "A fed bear is a dead bear," mostly because bears that start thinking of people as a source of food become dangerous and are usually put down.
  2. In bear country, keep your garbage in bear-proof containers. A simple trash can is easily opened, starting your local bear on its road to ruin. Hardware stores in mountain towns will have solutions for you, and maybe we'll start seeing those in Glendale, too.
  3. Practice food discipline when hiking or camping. Carry bear-proof food canisters when backpacking: the era of bear-bagging is over in much of California, as most bears in popular backpacking areas have figured out how to retrieve bearbags. Never cook in your tent: food smells will permeate even the most repellent plastic fabrics, causing bears to decide there must be food in there. Pack out all your trash in closable plastic bags and keep it in your food canister at night, along with toiletries and anything else that might be mistaken for food.

For more information on ways to keep bears from seeing people as a source of food, check out the California Department of Fish and Game's "Keep Me Wild" site.

Related:
- What to do if You Meet a Rattlesnake
- How to Identify a Marijuana Cultivation Site, and What to Do

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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