Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Are You Black Bear Smart? – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Are You Black Bear Smart?

Posted on 2012-02-04 By



Black bears (Ursus americanus) are forest dwellers that most people love but know almost nothing about.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected habitats for them in the Eastern part of the United States, and bears are a major attraction for the Park’s nearly 10 million annual tourists, many of whom come to the park expressly to see the bears. While bears can be found at all elevations of the GSMNP, they are most readily observed in Cades Cove which, not surprisingly, is also one of the most heavily visited areas of the park.

Do you know?

Black bears are shy, highly intelligent and inherently non-confrontational animals.

They prefer more remote areas away from human activity but that does not mean they are reclusive and solitary animals, which is what most people think. To the contrary, among their own kind Black bears have complex communications, they cooperatively share food sources, and they help each other out when those food sources are more plentiful in some areas than in others.

Black bear cubs remain with their mothers for the first 18-months of their lives, during which time the sow models critical survival skills.

However, Black bears have by now lost more than 60% of their range in North America and you and I literally stand in the way, or not, of their ultimate survival.

Bears are increasingly intersecting with residential communities and  towns in search of food, not only during lean years when their natural food sources are limited, but also because their natural range is shrinking and humans are encroaching. They are drawn by their highly developed sense of smell to accessible pet food, unsecured kitchen garbage, and bird feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds to augment their natural diet.

Nothing about this, however, bodes well for the bears.


Two Books You Need to Read

1- Among the Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild by Benjamin Kilham (2002)

2- In the Company of Bears: What Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition by Benjamin Kilham (2014)


These two natural history books are hard to put down once you start reading them.

An experienced naturalist, Ben Kilham’s bear stories and detailed descriptions of his many encounters with bears are astonishing in both scope and detail.

He has spent thousands of hours with wild bears documenting their lives, family groupings, interactions and complex modes of communication. And he has been on the receiving end of many wild bear behaviors that he eventually learned to decode.

You will glean more credible and far more detailed information about Black bears from Benjamin Kilham’s books than you will from almost any other source.

He has studied wild black bears for more than 30-years in a vast tract of Northern New Hampshire woodlands. He has also personally raised orphaned cubs and maintained enduring relationships with them in the wild after their release: watching them, filming them, interacting with them, observing their alliances and interactions with both strange and known bears, and educating others about them.

You will never again think the same about Black bears once you learn what this astute naturalist has to tell you about them.

Bad Bear Press

For generations Americans have been bombarded by popular media with unrealistic and frightening notions about bears. As a result, many of us harbor needless fears and wild imaginations, but nothing much that is actually factual about black bears and their behavior in the wild.

We need to educate ourselves!

Tourism and Bears

Tourists to National Parks in bear country also need to be educated about bears and about how they can help protect and conserve these amazing forest dwellers. In the process, they will hopefully come to respect bears for what they are — wild animals that can, at times, be unpredictable.

Unfortunately, most national park warnings and cautionary signs about bears don’t work.

That’s because visitors routinely ignore these warnings, often rushing on foot after bears with compact cameras in hand to photograph them. After all, they come to places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park expressly to see bears. Many park visitors even think it is cool to feed bears. And, above all, they want to get as close as possible to bears when they find them.

Consequently, bears in our national parks can become acclimated to humans and, as a result, they will inevitably be the ones to move in dangerously close to humans in search of food. [Acclimated bears immediately associate humans with food.]

But by dangerous I mean … dangerous for the bears!

FACT:  feeding bears kills bears. It never ends well for the bear and it puts humans at risk: simply removing a food source greatly reduces the danger of bears to humans.

FACT: if your presence causes a bear to change its behavior in any way (if it stops feeding, if it changes the direction in which it is traveling, or if it stops to watch you), then you are entirely TOO CLOSE to the bear.

FACT: a Black bear can run, climb and swim faster than any human can.

FACT: the more people in your hiking party the lower the chance of a bear encounter: the fewer the people in your hiking party the greater your risk, particularly when a bear smells food that you may be carrying with you.

FACT: a cornered bear is a dangerous bear.

FACT: park bears that injure humans are typically destroyed by the park service. Relocation is not a viable solution as bears will travel long distances to return to their home territory.

FACT: bears habituated to humans live half as long as wild bears.

FACT: they also lose their instinctual fear of humans and become disoriented in the fast-paced human environment. Without the dense protections of their natural habitat, bears easily fall prey to speeding automobiles, hunters and poachers, dogs, chemicals, pollutants, moldy or spoiled food, and the many indigestible (and harmful) objects often found in human garbage.

FACT: bears have a highly developed sense of smell.  They are drawn to food smells (natural, garbage or otherwise) from over a mile away.

FACT: in late summer/early fall, bears are driven to consume large quantities of calories in preparation for denning through the very lean winter months ahead. Human garbage and bird seed (also things like Purina dog chow and livestock feed) are generally much higher in calories than a bear’s natural food sources are; hence bears will interface more regularly with humans during this particular time period.

FACT: the best way to interact with a bear is to not interact with it at all. Give any bear a very wide berth.

But humans are frail and they do dumb things out of ignorance and immaturity. Don’t be lulled into thinking that you are I are in the majority, for we are not. Arm yourself with facts and be sure that YOU, at least, do the right thing when it comes to bears. AND HELP SPREAD THE WORD!

Dr. Ben Kilham has posted the following public service advisory on his website for those who encounter wild bears:Understanding Bear Behavior


Additional Black Bear Resources

1- The Rescue of an Orphaned Black Bear Cub in the Great Smoky Mountains (a photo essay by Dr. Ellen)

2- Tiny Black Bear Cubs Having a first-ever Veterinary Medical Examination Upon Rescue (a photo essay by Dr. Ellen)

3- Things That Go BUMP in the Night! (Dr. Ellen’s plug for bear-proof garbage cans)

4- See this 10-minute video tribute to Dr. Lynn Rogers and his research with Black Bears in Ely, Minnesota. He is affectionately called “The Bear Man” and is one of the world’s experts on Black bears. He founded Wildlife Research Institute to further this research into perpetuity.

5- See this 21-minute video entitled “Living With Black Bears in Virginia” produced by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.