Pennsylvania’s bear population has been increasing for decades, and at the same time, many people have moved into the areas where bears reside. As a result, bears and people are coming into contact more than ever. Most of these encounters occur when bears learn that there is easy-to-obtain food where people live. Learning about bears and being aware of their habits is important for people who live in bear country, which includes most of the state.
The bear facts
Ursus americanus is the black bear’s scientific name; it means “American bear.” Although three species of bears inhabit North America, only the black bear is found in Pennsylvania. A population estimate in 2015 showed approximately 20,000 bears living in the commonwealth. Black bears appear heavy, but are surprisingly agile; they can run up to 35 miles per hour, climb trees and swim well. They may live up to 25 years in the wild.
Black bears are intelligent and curious. Studies show that bears can see colors, recognize human forms, and notice even the slightest movement. Bears usually rely on their acute sense of smell and, to a lesser degree, hearing, to locate food and danger. Despite their common name, black bears are not always black. They may be cinnamon or, even rarer, blond. Many bears have a white blaze or “V” on their chest.
Adults usually weigh around 200 pounds, with males being heavier than females, often more than twice as much. Some weigh up to 600 or more pounds and rare individuals up to 900. Males are called boars; females, sows. Black bears measure about three feet high when on all fours or about five to seven feet tall when standing upright.
Bear signs and sounds
Black bear tracks are distinctive. The hind footprint resembles a human’s. Bears have five toes. The front foot is shorter than the rear, which is long and narrow. Claw marks may or may not be visible.
Bears use trails, just like people do. Look for tracks in soft earth or around mud puddles, and for claw marks on smooth-bark trees or rotten logs that have been ripped apart for insects. It’s also easy to recognize a black bear’s sizeable droppings of partly digested berries, vegetation, corn or animal hair.
Adult black bears make a variety of sounds that include woofing, growling and jaw-popping. Sows communicate with their cubs by using low grunts or huffs. Cubs whimper, chuckle and bawl.
Bears and Winter
Bears are usually dormant in winter, remaining in their dens, which can be rock caverns; excavated holes beneath shrubs, trees or dead falls; in hollow trees; or nests built on the ground. A hibernating bear’s heart rate and breathing slow, and its body temperature drops slightly. During this time they do not eat, drink or pass body wastes. A hibernating bear relies on stored fat to make it through the winter, however, they may emerge if disturbed.
Mating and Breeding
In Pennsylvania, bears mate primarily from early June to mid-July. Males are very aggressive towards each other at this time. Sows give birth in January to litters of one to five. The newborn cubs are blind, toothless, and covered with short, fine hair that seems to inadequately cover their pink skin. Cubs begin nursing immediately after birth, and are groomed and cared for daily by the sow. Nurtured with the sow’s rich milk, they grow from as light as 10 ounces at birth to as much as 10 pounds by the time they leave the den in early April. Males do not help rear young.
Most cubs stay with the sow for a little more than a year. They watch her every move and learn by imitating her. Cubs are playful, regularly romping and wrestling with their littermates. The sows are very protective of cubs, sending them up trees if danger threatens. Adult males occasionally kill cubs. The family group disbands when the cubs are about a year and a half old and the sow is again ready to breed.
Bears may be on the move at any time, but are most active at dusk and dawn. Bears are omnivorous, eating almost anything, from berries, corn, acorns, beechnuts and even grass, to table scraps, carrion, honey and insects. During late summer and fall, black bears fatten up for winter hibernation. At this time they may actively feed for up to 20 hours a day, ingesting up to 20,000 calories.
Intentionally feeding bears is against the law in Pennsylvania. It is also against the law to put out any feed, for any wildlife, that is causing bears to congregate or habituate to an area.
If You Live In Bear Country
If you live in bear country, you may need to make some accommodations to coexist peacefully with these large animals. Make sure you don’t encourage bears to become problem bears by letting potential food sources attract them into residential areas.
Black bears will eat human food, garbage, bird feed, pet foods, fruits from trees or gardens, and livestock feed. They also raid cornfields and beehives. Once bears find easily accessible food sources, whether on a farm or in a housing development, they will keep coming back as long as food is available. With every returning trip they slowly lose their fear of people, which can lead to bolder attempts at accessing food, and as time spent near people increases, so does the risk of being struck by a vehicle or becoming a more serious nuisance. The best way to get rid of these unwanted visitors is to remove or secure food sources. A persistent bear may damage property, increase the risk of human injury, or become an unwanted visitor in other parts of the neighborhood. And, all too often, fed bears become dead bears.
Perhaps the best way to keep bears from being attracted to your home is to keep them from finding food there in the first place. Don’t put out your trash until the morning of collection day. Be sure garbage cans are cleaned regularly, with hot water and chlorine bleach. Clean the outdoor grill after every use, and properly dispose of grill grease. Don’t dump the grease out back. If you feed birds during summer (and if you’re living in bear country, you shouldn’t be), you may want to bring all bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders, in at night. Keep the area around your gardens and fruit trees clean, and avoid putting food scraps in compost piles. Store trash, bird seed and pet food inside a building, garage or secure shed, and keep the door closed.
If you have pets, bring their food pans inside at night. Bears generally steer clear of chained or penned dogs. Unleashed dogs that approach bears, however, may be injured or killed. If you have a dog in bear country, don’t let it roam far from the house, leash it whenever you hike in the woods, and keep it in the house or in a kennel at night. It’s also a good practice in bear country to take a quick look outside before letting a dog out into the yard, especially at night.
Beehives attract bears, especially right after the bruins come out of hibernation in the spring and during the peak honey production period of late summer and fall. Electric fences are the best way to protect bees, honey and equipment. Contact the appropriate Game Commission region office for information about fencing. Electric fencing can also be used to protect fruit trees and gardens.
Black bears are also attracted to corn, especially in the milk stage. Bears can devastate cornfields. Contact the appropriate Game Commission region office if bears are causing extensive damage; game wardens may be able to help.
Placing food out for bears, even if intended for other wildlife, can be particularly troublesome. Because the food is predictably available, bears may visit the area more frequently, speeding up the habituation process. Bears that frequent these areas are often tempted by other food sources in the neighborhood, too, where they can become a significant nuisance. They may raid bird feeders, clean out dog dishes, kill domestic animals, or rifle through garbage containers. Moreover, feeding congregates bears, which significantly increases the risk of spreading disease since bear are otherwise mostly solitary animals. Mange, which is a debilitating condition of the skin and fur that can lead to death, is an example of a disease spread by close-animal contact at feeders.
If you come across a bear on your property, there are two possible courses of action. The first is to make loud noises or shout at the bear from a distance – like you’d react to a dog getting into your trash. The second option is to leave the bear alone, and clean up the bear’s mess after it leaves. Follow up by making sure you eliminate whatever attracted the bear in the first place. You may need to talk to your neighbors, as well.
If bears are regularly feeding at a site, encourage your neighbors or community to clean up and close the area.
Feeding bears is against the law. It is also against the law to put out any feed, for any wildlife, that is causing bears to congregate or habituate to an area.
Camping and Hiking in Bear Country
Although black bears are generally shy and avoid contact with humans, it’s important to remember that bears must be respected for their size and strength. Do not deliberately approach a bear or attempt to entice one closer. Keep your distance. Do everything you can to prevent close encounters and conflicts with bears. Giving a bear food will encourage it to approach other, unsuspecting people, which could then lead to an unpleasant or possibly dangerous encounter, and could lead to the bear having to be destroyed.
- Keep your camp clean and odor free. Wipe tables and clean eating utensils thoroughly after every meal. Burn all grease off grills and camp stoves.
- Store your food in safe or bear-proof places: in your car trunk or hard-sided camper, for example, or suspended from a tree branch. Never have food in your tent.
- Dispose of garbage properly. Use the camp receptacles if provided, or store trash in your vehicle. Pack out your garbage if you must, but never leave your garbage behind.
- If you hike at dawn or dusk, or where hearing or visibility is impaired (roar of fast moving water, thick vegetation), reduce your chances of surprising a bear by talking or making noise.
- Leave dogs at home or keep them on a leash.
What To Do If You Meet A Bear
Bear attacks are extremely rare, especially considering how often people encounter them. In most cases, a bear will detect you first and leave the area long before you’ll ever see it. However, if you do meet a bear before it’s had time to leave, here are some suggestions. Every bear encounter is different.
Alert the bear — If you see a bear, make some noise to alert the bear of your presence, giving it ample time and space to turn and leave. Avoid being caught up in the excitement of seeing a bear and inadvertently letting the bear get too close before surprising it.
Get back — If you have a close encounter, back away slowly while facing the bear so you always know where the bear is and how its reacting. Wild bears rarely attack people. Slowly backing away diffuses the situation and gives the bear room to flee.
Stay calm — encountering a bear can be startling, but try to remain calm. While moving away, avoid sudden movements and talk to help the bear keep track of your retreat. Don’t turn and run or attempt to climb a tree. Running may prompt the bear to give chase, and climbing a tree could be interpreted as a threat to any cubs that are present since cubs often climb trees when startled. Move toward your camper, house or vehicle if nearby.
Pay attention — Bears will use all of their senses to figure out what you are. If they recognize you as a person, some may stand upright or move closer in their efforts to detect odors in the air currents. Don’t consider this a sign of aggression. Once a bear identifies you, it will usually leave. If it begins to slowly approach you, face the bear, wave your arms wildly and shout while continuing to back away. The idea is to intimidate the bear into retreating. Swing a stick, your backpack or whatever is handy if the bear gets close.
If suddenly surprised, some bears may feel threatened and give warning signs that they are uncomfortable. They may clack their jaws together or sway their head; those are signs for you to leave. Some bears have been known to charge to within a few feet when threatened. If this occurs, wave your arms wildly and shout at the bear.
Fight back — Black bear attacks are extremely rare. If a black bear attacks, fight back. Bears have been driven away when people have fought back with rocks, sticks, binoculars and even their bare hands.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is responsible for managing, conserving and protecting all wildlife, and is committed to doing everything possible to keep bear conflicts to a minimum. Regulating harvest to stabilize or reduce bear numbers in problem areas and prohibiting the feeding of bears are measures taken to help alleviate conflicts with bears. If you are having a problem with a bear and have no success using these suggestions, or have been threatened by a bear, please contact the appropriate Game Commission region office.