While working in the field recently, I was approached by a concerned sportsman. He informed me that there was a sow (female) bear with cubs nearby, and was warning folks to stay clear of the area. He wanted to ensure that the animals were not harassed, and he was concerned about human safety. I stayed clear of the bears, finished my work and left without any injury or complication.
Any wild animal has the ability to inflict harm on humans, black bears included. They may not have the greatest jaw strength of our Northwoods carnivores (half that of a wolf), but bears have strong legs and large, clawed paws that could break bones with a single swipe. However, black bear attacks on humans are very rare, and are almost always a result of a bear acting in fear or self-defense. There have been fewer than 50 deaths reported in North America since 1900 that were the result of black bear attacks.
Bears with cubs tend to avoid humans whenever possible. Typically, when a mother bear senses danger, she signals her cubs to scramble up the nearest tree and she flees the scene. The cubs can be up the tree for a day or two until she returns for them. This is often the reason we get a call about a seemingly orphaned bear cub. However, most times the mother returns, calls the cubs down, and leaves with the young ones trailing behind. I have never heard of an incident involving a person threatened by a sow with cubs; most reports of bear vocalizations or bluff charges involved either bears during breeding season or bears near food.
One night, my wife was warned by the loud “huff” of a bear that was sitting in the alley behind our house in Florence. As I discovered the next morning, it had been in our garbage, opening several baby diapers and eating the contents.
Remember, if you encounter a bear with or without cubs, a wolf, cougar, pretty much any wild animal, there are some simple guidelines to keep in mind. Do not make the animal feel threatened or cornered; this triggers a defensive mechanism that tells them to fight their way out of the situation. Make certain the animal is aware of your presence. Back up slowly, speaking in a normal tone of voice. Give the animal an escape route. If it begins to act aggressive, you may have to raise your arms, make yourself look as large as possible, and raise your voice to loud talking or yelling. However, most often the animal will take the first escape route it can get. The exception may be if the animal is near a good food source. If you come upon a wolf or cougar on a freshly killed deer, make it clear that you know you need to leave, backing away slowly.
I have been in the field for 15 years and have never felt the need to protect myself from wildlife. I have had close calls, but never with bears, wolves or cougars. I always tell people the best defense is to carry a camera, because every time I try to take a photo of one, all I get is a blurry snapshot of the escaping animal’s hind end.
It is not the big animals that concern me; microscopic threats are far worse. I contracted West Nile Virus when it was first identified in our avian population. On one occasion, I was hospitalized after work from pulling a beaver dam that resulted in a serious case of Leptospirosis. Snakebites don’t concern me, but skunks and ticks do. Lyme’s disease is extremely dangerous, and rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal. The most dangerous part of my job from a biological standpoint is not the large, toothy animals; it is the invisible enemy that enters the body and attacks it on a cellular level.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.