August 20, 2018
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Biologists: Despite recent Nova Scotia incident, Maine black bears far more likely to run away than chase a human

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
A fisherman in Nova Scotia recently had a close encounter with a black bear that chased him across a salmon pool. Maine wildlife biologists don't recommend people run if a bear charges them. In fact, most Maine bears will actively try to avoid human contact.
By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Updated:

An Atlantic salmon fisherman in Nova Scotia recently had a close encounter of the furry kind when he was chased across a salmon pool on the Margaree River.

According to the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Greg Lovely regularly encounters black bears while fishing. But on July 21, he ran into a bear that actively charged him, swimming across the salmon pool after the wading angler. Lovely made it to his car safely, and the bear gave up its pursuit on the shore of the pool.

Maine wildlife biologists Randy Cross and Jennifer Vashon, whose focus is black bears, said Lovely’s response isn’t recommended, but his actions worked out well in the situation he found himself.

“He ran. [We advise people to] back away,” Vashon said. “It doesn’t come out in the story, how close that bear was to him when he started running … we always say, ‘Unless you can get to safety quickly, don’t run.’ That must have been the judgment that he made — he could get to safety before the bear could get to him.”

Bear encounters in Maine are infrequent, and bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. But Mainers do have hundreds of conflicts with nuisance bears each year.

Vashon said bear complaints seem to fluctuate from year to year, with a busy bear-conflict year followed by one that isn’t so busy. In dry years, the number of complaints increase as the berries and vegetation bears seek is less plentiful or not as easy to digest.

In 2017, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported 389 bear complaints, Vashon said. This year — since April 1 — the state has received 462 bear complaints. The most ever recorded came in 2012, when 830 bear complaints were recorded.

A Nova Scotia wildlife official said Cape Breton has had several bear incidents this year, and five or six bears have been relocated or euthanized. A cold late spring and shortage of berries may be to blame.

After reading the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s account of the Nova Scotia encounter, Cross said it’s hard to tell if the black bear really wanted to attack Lovely.

“It didn’t sound like a bluff charge, because [the bear] continued a little, but it’s hard to know,” Cross said. “You’d have to stand your ground to know if it was a bluff charge or not.”

Of course, that’s a hard way to learn if a bear was serious or just fooling around.

Cross said he has never come across a bear that he thought was stalking him, though he has met a few he knows weren’t too fond of him.

“I’ve had a few bears that I thought had bad intentions, but not in free-ranging [situations],” said Cross, who each spring spends a few weeks live-trapping bears, some of which are added to the state’s long-term bear study. “Bears that we capture and have tied to a tree are cornered, in a way, and they sometimes feel that their only option to protect themselves, defend themselves, is by being aggressive.”

Those bears, Cross pointed out, don’t have the option of reversing course and running away. And he said that’s a tactic Maine bears regularly choose to employ.

“We have bears that will basically do anything they can, turn themselves inside out, to get away from a human,” Cross said.

And Maine’s bears got that way in part because they’re regularly hunted, he said.

“I think aggressive bears are more common in places where they have less interaction with people, and are more common in areas where there is no hunting or limited hunting,” Cross said.

In Maine, bears that don’t learn to avoid humans are often removed from the population.

“If they don’t pass the test, they’re out of the population,” Cross said. “And that’s been going on for generations and generations of bears.”

And as bear hunting guides begin baiting Maine’s bears in preparation for the hunting season that begins at the end of August, Cross drew a clear distinction between the human behaviors of feeding bears and baiting them for the hunt.

“Most people don’t see the difference [between feeding and baiting], but there’s a huge difference,” Cross said. “When you’re feeding bears, the most bold bears get the most rewards. When you’re baiting bears, the most bold bears get killed. Big difference.”

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