In another thread, about carrying guns on a homestead, I mentioned bears. Wanting to reply to a resulting post, I realized that what I wanted to discuss wasn't specifically about guns so, not wanting to take the other thread off topic, I thought I'd start another here. People tend to have strong feelings about bears, even those who have never seen one, and there are reasonable arguments that can be made in all directions on the subject, so let's have at it. Doing a forum search, I can see that a fairly lively discussion has already taken place here on bears in compost piles but, since I wanted to talk about more than compost piles, I decided to start a new topic.
First, I am not an expert on the subject, don't claim to be, and haven't even played one on TV; however, I did grow up in bear country and currently have a hundred acres of land in northern Maine that I share with at least four individual black bears, some of whom only visit during mating season. I don't think that I am naive when it comes to bears, and sometimes even carry a gun while walking on my land, yet I have no reasonable expectation of ever having to use it, and just as often I don't carry a gun when walking on my land.
I have never actually seen any of the bears on my land in Maine, because bears prefer it that way, but I have trail cameras set up that I move to various parts of the property, and hardly a day goes by that at least one bear doesn't show up on camera. In fact, I have a theory that one particular bear has made a game out of finding my camera because even when I moved it into a small clearing in the middle of a cedar swamp on the far end of the property, he was there within a few days. Since black bears on camera often look very very much alike, I may have had more than four individual bears.
From homesteaders and others who live in or on the edge of bear country, I often get the feeling that the very presence of a bear is seen as a threat and an imposition, and many will voice opinions reminiscent of early views of Native Americans, that the only good bear is a dead bear.
I grew up on a small farm on the edge of bear country, and spent a great deal of time in the woods, and have never viewed bears as a threat, at least no more than I would dogs or other people. In fact, far more people are killed each year by dogs and other people than by bears. I grew up in the UP of Michigan, where there were bears in the woods on the far side of our pasture, yet only once did we see one outside of the woods, and that was a young black bear that we watched running across the pasture, crossing the road and our neighbor's pasture, the into the woods on the other side. Generally, bears that have not been acclimated to people will go way out of their way to avoid being seen. We always had a couple of dogs, so there was never any evidence of bears coming into our yard or around the barns and outbuildings. Yet there was plenty of evidence of them in the woods. If we were to see a bear in the woods, it would be a fleeting glimpse of a bear's butt retreating into the bushes.
As children, we camped out in the woods all the time, without parents or adults with us, and neither we or our parents ever show any fear of harm coming to us from marauding bears. My cousins and I spent two full weeks in a teepee sort of structure that we had built ourselves out of native materials. Of course, there were always some scary moments, hearing the noises of animals scuffling about outside of our tent at night, but these villains of the night were as likely to have been raccoons than bears.
Recently, I did some research into the numbers of people killed by black bears in North America. I don't have the statistics in front of me right now, but most of these fatal attacks were committed by caged bears or bears that people had turned into pets, followed closely by attacks occurring in national parks or other unnatural environments, where bears have become acclimated to viewing people as sources of food. Third, but way behind the other two, were that of bears in places that had only recently been settled by people, where there were more bears than the natural environment could support.
Maine had only one recorded fatality caused by a black bear, which is the only kind of bear we have here, and that was a bear that had been kept in a cage at a gas station in, I think it was in the 1930s. The gas station owner, and keeper of the bear, had gone into the cage with the bear for some reason, and was attacked and killed. Going back as far as 1900, there were no recorded deaths caused by black bears in the wild in Maine, and very few attacks. Our black flies probably pose more of a threat than our black bears.
The dangers presented by black bears are nevertheless real and are, to some extent, probably regional in nature. Black bears in Maine, with its vast woodlands and forests, have little need to rummage through people's trash cans at night, or to enter homes looking for food.
Bears are nearly always in search of food. Over the spring, summer and fall, a black bear will put on a huge amount of weight, in preparation for winter. Rather than being major predators of deer or livestock, black bears rarely hunt and kill animals larger than rabbits or rodents. When bear are found feeding on a deer or on someone's cow, the greater likelihood is that the animal died of something else before the bear came along. Eighty-five to ninety percent of a black bear's diet consists of vegetable and plant matter, and a large percentage of its meat is in the form of insects, caterpillars, grubs and other crawly things.
The above refers to a black bear's preference. However, black bears are highly adaptable. When its environment is changed, whether by human encroachment or other destruction of the forests and woodlands in which it lives, then the bear will look elsewhere for food. One of the places it might look is in your backyard. A dog will generally be enough to keep a bear away, and I've seen video of large bears being chased away by little ankle-biting dogs. Otherwise, if the bear comes into your backyard, it will usually be at night. If it finds food in a trashcan that you have left outside, it is going to get into that trashcan, and it will remember your backyard as being a source of food. Other attractants include birdfeeders, food stored in accessible outbuildings, dog food bowls left outside while the dog is taken in at night, or chickens and other kinds of poultry. A very hungry bear might look to larger animals as prey, but generally any animal larger than the bear will be safe from harm.
People who live in the city take precautions to protect their stuff. At the very least, they lock their doors and their windows, and they don't leave their keys in their car. People may go beyond that, to hire security companies, installing burglar alarms, and maybe carrying their wallet in their front pocket rather than their back left pocket, where thieves may expect to find it. We warn our children to look both ways before crossing the street, and not to talk to strangers.
Yet, when they move to the country, they think that they don't have to worry anymore about anyone taking their stuff. That's not true. Not only are there dishonest people in the country as well, but you need to concern yourself with the raccoons, skunks, bears and other critters who may be lurking about in the night, or even in the daytime, looking for your stuff. Take similar precautions. Don't put food wastes in trash cans or bags outdoors or in easily accessible porches and outbuildings. Take your birdfeeder in at night, or make sure that it's not accessible by bears. Birdseed is very high in the calories that bears need and are looking for, and they will be strongly attracted to it. If you have a dog, don't yell at it to shut up at night because it's probably busy doing its job, as annoying as it might be at three o'clock in the morning.
Don't feed the bears, whether intentionally or accidentally, and they are not likely to be a nuisance. Feed the bears, and you can expect to find more of them. If you remember reading about the marks that hobos would put on people's fences indicating whether or not they were a soft touch, it's a little like that, I think. Bears will remember the places where they have found food in the past, and they will come back. If you don't find food, you may still have a bear coming in to investigate from time to time, but you won't have repeat visits.
In my research, I have read some accounts of people whose homes or camps had been broken into by bears, some even resulting in attacks. At least two of these people had been feeding the bears, because they enjoyed seeing the bears in their yard. Once you have a bear in your yard, the animal can smell any food that you might have out in your house and, although it would certainly be unusual, the bear might decide that it's worth the effort to go in and get some. Campers are wisely told not to keep food in their tent. If you are living in bear country, it's a good idea not to leave food lying around in your house either, such as on your table or on a window sill. Of course, the first step would be not to attract them into your yard to begin with.
When you are in the city, do you leave your wallet lying on the seat of your car where anyone walking by can see it? Of course not, because that might tempt someone to break into your car and take it. It's the same principle, only bears can smell a lot better than they can see, so you want to keep the smells down.
My experience is restricted to black bears. While I have done some reading on brown bears, grizzlies and polar bears, I don't know a lot about them. Of course, you should feel free to discuss them here as well, if you wish. There are more similarities than there are differences.
The most dangerous black bear is one that has been acclimated to people, and which has come to view people as sources of food. These would be the ones who can be found in national parks or other unnatural habitats. These might also include those that have become accustomed to being fed by people, whether intentionally or through carelessness.
The next most dangerous black bear is one that resides so far into the wilderness that it has no experience with people at all. Such a bear might view a person as being the 150-pound weakling that he is, and could potentially view the person as being food.
Then, of course, there are the aberrancies. It is not the norm for people to molest, rape, murder or cannibalize people, yet there are people who do these things. The same may be true of a bear. For reasons that may make sense only to the bear, some bears might just simply be dangerous. With such bears, there is probably a story behind whatever it is that they are, as there is with people who exhibit aberrant behavior, but that story doesn't matter to you if you are being attacked. This is outside of the norm, but it can occur. Nevertheless, just as most of us don't walk around in cities and towns with an unreasonable fear of people, we shouldn't have an unreasonable fear of bears while we are in the forest. Caution and respect are in order, but not fear.