What if I See a Bear?
Black bears are some of the most awe inspiring creatures in the Sierra Nevada, and seeing one in the wild is an experience to cherish. While they do not pose the same threat to people as their larger cousin the grizzly, they still must be treated with great respect and caution.
In the wild, a bear is likely to disappear into the woods upon seeing a human. Near developed areas, however, some have become habituated to people. After obtaining human food – even just once – these bears can become aggressive toward humans. Drawn to developed areas, these habituated bears run a higher risk of being struck by cars, and if their aggressive behavior becomes a safety hazard wildlife managers are forced to euthanize them.
It depends on where you are:
In a Wilderness Setting:
Consider yourself lucky! Many visitors want to have this experience during their stay in the Sierra Nevada. A bear going about its business in a natural setting is something to cherish and quietly observe. Enjoy the experience, and follow these simple rules:
Stay together in one group – don’t spread out, especially with small children
Give the bear(s) lots of room – 50 yards or more
Don’t get between a sow (mom) and her cubs – always look around for cubs, including in nearby trees
Don’t linger too long – allow the bear to go about its business without following
Use a telelphoto lens – don’t try to get close for a picture
Never feed anything to a bear – or to any wildlife for that matter
In a Developed Area (or backcountry campsite):
This is not a bear’s natural habitat – the more time a bear spends in developed areas, the more habituated to humans it will become. To help protect the bear, scare it out of the developed area by using these techniques:
Make sure all your “food” (anything with a scent) is stored correctly – don’t walk away from food left on a picnic table, grill, etc.
Gather your group together – especially small kids
Make lots of noise – aggressively yell, clap, bang pots and pans, or sing bombastic Russian (or Serbian) Opera
Never surround a bear – they need an escape route!
Never get between a sow (mom) and her cubs – cubs might be up a nearby tree
Never try to take food back from a bear Don’t run – if a bear huffs and shows you its profile (stands sideways), it may bluff charge. Stand your ground or back away slowly.
It is not uncommon for a black bear to show its dominance by bluff charging. This is usually preceded by the bear “huffing” and showing you its profile (standing with its side toward you). If this happens, look big, raise your arms, and stand your ground. As soon as the bear backs away, you should back away as well. The bear may be guarding food or cubs and view you as a threat.
What if I get attacked by a bear?
While it is extremely unusual for black bears to harm humans, injuries are reported every year in the Sierra Nevada. In the unlikely event that a bear does make contact with you, roll into a ball, face down with your hands over your neck. If the bear continues its aggression, bear experts advise that you fight back.
Note: The guidelines on this site DO NOT necessarily apply when visiting Grizzly habitat (the black bear’s larger and more aggressive cousin). For more information on traveling in Grizzly areas, check out the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
Aversive Conditioning: What are Those Rangers Doing?
You may see (or hear) trained rangers using aggressive techniques to scare bears:
noisemakers bean-bags fired from a shotgun trained dogs other “conditioning” methods
The intent of these techniques is not to harm bears, but to scare them from developed areas and restore their natural fear of humans by providing a negative experience. This reduces conflicts between humans and bears by retraining conditioned bears to subsist on natural foods in the wild instead of human food.
Please do not try these techniques – or become offended by use of them. Rangers are well-trained and safety-conscious. While these techniques can be highly effective, they are only successful if human food is not available. Make sure to store your food properly!