Who’s afraid of the big, black bear? | SierraSun.com

Who’s afraid of the big, black bear?

Ann Bryant, BEAR League

Before it gets too wild, it might be a good time to go over a little interesting bear history. Does everyone know we used to have grizzly bears all around Tahoe? That guy on the California state flag, he’s a grizzly. Don’t panic, though, we don’t have any left. We killed them all.

There actually used to be more grizzly bears in California than there were black bears. They congregated in herds. Back in the 1700s and early 1800s, the first white men who came to explore and settle (and take over) this land oftentimes saw dozens of big, brown grizzly bears in open meadows grazing on vegetation or on beaches along the coast, dining on stranded whale carcasses. These bears were at the top of the food chain and feared nothing. Before the appearance of gun-toting European people, the bears’ only minor inconvenience was an arrow or spear shot or thrown by a terrified Native American. And the Indians most definitely were afraid of the big brown bears!

The smaller black bears (the only bear we have left) were also very afraid of the big, brown grizzly bears. In some areas they shared habitat but they were not, by any means, best friends. The black bears would beat a hasty retreat back into the woods and up a tree if a grizzly approached. Full grown grizzlies aren’t such great climbers so hiding out high in a tree deep in the forest worked out all right for the black bears.

In this ancient pecking order the Native Americans fit right in the middle of the two species of bears. An elder of a tribe not far from here told a story from years ago when she was very young. Several of the children were out gathering acorns with one of the adults when they heard the sound of a bear coming from the other side of some bushes. The children always enjoyed sneaking up on the black bears in order to jump up, scare the bears and watch them run away in terror. They had no fear of these bears and thought of them as big, scared bunny rabbits. As they prepared for their traditional game, the supervising adult saw that it was a grizzly instead of a black bear. She quickly but quietly told them “Stand like sticks!” The children realized this was the other kind of bear and were so afraid they wanted to run as fast as they could to get away but their guardian held them there, motionless, until long after the big bear had departed. Many of their people had been killed or severely injured by these big grizzly bears. No one they knew had ever been killed by a black bear. And, even to this day, no one in California (or Nevada) has been killed by a black bear.

I find it intriguing, but sad, that some of us are so terribly afraid of black bears – bears that for thousands of years ran away from children and still do! Bears that will quickly retreat up a tree in fear when anyone shouts “boo!” at them. It must be Hollywood and hunter magazines. Did you know the bear that is standing up growling and snarling in the movies does this because his trainer tells him he will give him a cookie and a kiss if he does so? The sports magazine cover-picture of the huge bears attacking screaming people in the woods are artists’ convoluted nightmares or are taxidermist’s wildest imaginations coming to life. These images, however far-fetched, stick in our minds. Along with the stories our older brothers and sisters told us of the big, bad bear under the bed who was just waiting to eat us.

We don’t need to be afraid of the bears who share the Truckee-Tahoe area with us, but we do need to be sensible. The trick is to keep them afraid of us by not feeding them and by not allowing them to feel comfortable when they get too close to our houses. When they do that, we should yell at them like a grizzly bear would. You’ll feel extra tough as you watch the bear run off as fast as his furry, fat legs can carry him. The worst thing you can do is run and hide under your bed when a bear is snooping around your property. This is a sign of submission to him and he’ll gladly move in.

Just a couple of months ago we had one of our new BEAR League members with us on a call involving a bear in someone’s garbage. He was impressed at how gentle and non-threatening the bear was and couldn’t believe how safe he felt even being relatively close to him while we worked to get him away from his garbage lunch box. This same person just called to tell me that he had been out jogging and a neighborhood dog had attacked and bitten him viciously. He had just returned from the doctor’s office. Another dog a couple of years ago had also bitten him. His conclusion: You are far more apt to be attacked and harmed by someone’s dog than you are by a bear. This is very true. Statistics prove that you are 147 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear. And, here’s the one I hope you’ll allow to sink in: You are 90,000 times more likely to be murdered by another human being that you are to be killed by a black bear!

So, who is the most dangerous mammal?

Ann Bryant is executive director of the BEAR League. Call the BEAR League at 525-PAWS (7297) or e-mail bearsnsquirrels@thegrid.net or go to our Web site at http://www.savebears.org.