Understanding Black Bears

Ursine behavior is a mystery to most, but not to one extraordinary hunter.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Black bears are increasing throughout their range, thanks to better management and the regrowth of forest on land that once was cleared. But as black bear numbers grow, more of them are getting in trouble with people who consider them a nuisance.

"People say they like to see bears, but if a bear destroys a $7 bird feeder, those same people declare the bear a nuisance and want authorities to come and remove it," says licensed wildlife rehabilitator Ben Kilham of Lyme, New Hampshire. "The sad fact is that most nuisance bears that are removed end up being destroyed because it is too expensive and time-consuming for authorities to handle bear complaints any other way."

For six years, Kilham has been acting as "mother" to orphaned black bear cubs in the forested hills of Grafton County, New Hampshire. So far, he has helped 17 cubs learn how to survive in the wild.

Long after his bears have returned to a totally wild existence, they continue to acknowledge Kilham and seek him out when they find his scent within their territories. When he hikes into their haunts the rehabilitated bears frequently sense his arrival, find him, and join him for playful periods of affection and recognition. Sometimes they bring their wild companions along.

"We have great reunions," Kilham relates. "They rub against me to cover me with bear scent and make affectionate moaning sounds. They like to have me lie down and take a nap with them. Sometimes they play rough, but they have never been hostile."

These unusual events have been filmed by National Geographic as part of a special television feature. Kilham is currently at work on a book that documents his discoveries concerning black bear behavior.

Kilham claims that black bears are not the solitary animals that biological literature has claimed them to be. In fact, his close daily observation has convinced him that bears are in regular communication with one another, even though they may roam separately. He has determined that bear "marking trees" are not only territorial boundary markers, but are also important ursine message centers.

Using an electronic-eye camera mounted on a tree near a food patch used by bears, Kilham recorded the action at certain remote bear marking trees. He found that during a 24-hour period, several different bears appeared at the marking tree at separate hours to check the scents left by previous visitors and to add their own messages for those that followed.

"By checking activity at marking trees bears learn what other bears are eating and are tipped off to new food supplies as they become available," Kilham explains. "This form of cooperation is manifested only by animals of the very highest intellect."

[pagebreak] **Avoidance Training
** A hunter himself, Kilham does not object to bear hunting, but he wanted to make sure that the bears he rehabilitated developed a strong fear of man so that they would not be easy prey for hunters.

"I wanted to make them afraid of people, dogs, and roads," he explains. To accomplish this Kilham teamed up with Gordon Wilder, a well-respected bear houndsman from nearby Plainfield. Wilder agreed to patrol roads with his dogs near Kilham's study area.

When the bears crossed roads, they got chased by Wilder's very aggressive hounds. Some were even treed. But the bears quickly learned they could escape from the hounds by climbing over ledges too steep for hounds to follow. They learned that trouble came when they left their scent trails on roads. By the time hunting season opened, the rehabilitated bears knew a lot about how to avoid hunters.

When authorities were being pressed by residents to get rid of three bears that had become nuisances in Hanover last summer, Kilham and Wilder used the harassment-by-hounds technique to convince the bears to stay away from settled areas. The bears were rummagging in garbage cans, licking barbecue grills, and raiding bird feeders, as they often do when people leave fragrant food items outside in bear country.

Kilham and Wilder gave each bear a few good chases, which succeeded in putting the fear of dogs in them. The pair also asked people to remove the food sources. After that the bears stayed in the woods.

Kilham says that male bears are usually the easiest to train to avoid certain places because they have very large home ranges to which they have little allegiance. "If they get harassed at one food source, they have plenty of other food sources they can hit. A good scare can convince a male bear that he should avoid that place in the future," he explains.

Females, however, are more difficult to evict because they have small territories to which they have very strong allegiance; therefore, they have fewer food sources to draw upon. Though females may be more persistent, if they are repeatedly harassed and frightened when they show up where they're not wanted, they will avoid those places in the future. Furthermore, the sows will teach their cubs to avoid such places, too.

According to Kilham, hound harassment works because it reinforces how bears normally settle disputes. "In the wild, bears settle disputes with their teeth, and young bears quickly learn where they will be tolerated and where they won't," he notes. "Young bears have to establish their habits according to when and where they can find food without being attacked. If they find out early that they will be attacked and chased by hounds when they venture into certain areas, it's similar to being chased out by another bear. They avoid that place in the future."

[pagebreak] **Bear Fright
** Kilham believes that bears frighten people inadvertently because they behave in ways that people misinterpret. For example, if you surprise a bear at close range, the bear may stand up and stare at you, huffing and showing its tongue. The bear is not being aggressive; it is simply trying to get your scent so that it can identify you. Huffing out warm, damp breath enhances the bear's ability to gather scent from the air, and it uses its tongue as well as its nose to maximize its scent-gathering capability.

Likewise, when a bear is treed it often moans and slobbers, and fluids may pour from its nose. The effect may be startling, but the bear is not being aggressive. It actually is exhibiting emotional stress.

"The fluids flowing from the bear's nose are bear tears," says Kilham. "That bear is so scared of you it's crying."

The Invisible Bear
If bear numbers are increasing, why don't we see them in the woods more often? Because, Kilham says, "Bears are brilliantly secretive." Bears feel insecure in open places where they can be seen. They may use game or hiking trails when they feel safe, but they also have networks of secret trails. Those trails are always in the thickest, darkest, or steepest places. Bears spend most of their time in areas where people don't go.

"The fact that you don't see bears doesn't mean that bears haven't seen you," he adds. When a bear senses the approach of humans, it disappears. But that doesn't mean that it runs away. Bears have an almost magical ability to make themselves invisible when they don't want to be seen. They use shadows, terrain, and cover to hide themselves so that you will not see them, even when they are actually quite close.

"A bear will often stand up behind a large tree and peek around the trunk at you," Kilham says. "It moves around the tree as you pass, keeping an eye on you while keeping its body hidden from view behind the trunk."

Ultimately, Kilham's black bear behavior studies may significantly influence how humans relate to bears. As human-bruin populations continue to overlap, understanding bear behavior is more vital than ever.