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What should you do if you see a bear?

Update February 20, 2010 – 6:26 PM CST

(WRI Update)

What should you do if you see a black bear? 


The standard answer nationwide is, “Speak calmly and back away slowly.”  This identifies you as a person, shows you to be non-threatening, and gives the bear space.  Not bad advice.

But do you have to follow that advice to avoid an attack?  No.  Those are polite actions that respect a black bear’s comfort zone and help ease its anxiety.  It is the gentle way to separate.  Standing quietly without speaking might give you more opportunity to observe what the bear is doing.  More aggressive action would likely send the bear running like many of us saw on Animal Planet’s ‘Bear Whisperer’ a couple nights ago.

Is one action safer than another?  If a black bear is more than a few yards away, it seldom matters what you do.  Attacks are rare no matter what.

One might say, “What? I’ve heard lots of advice about what a person must do.”  Yes, well-meaning advice-givers have said a lot of things.  Most have had no close-up experience with wild, non-tranquilized bears, and that includes most bear biologists.  A problem with most advice is that it really makes no difference and carries the hidden, scary message that if you don’t do it, you will be in deep trouble, maybe killed.

Much of the usual advice is based on assumptions that bears are quick to anger—like they are portrayed on covers of hunting magazines—and that they would love to attack us if they only dared.  We can attest, after 43 years of working with wild bears, that those assumptions are wrong.

Realizing how little science and how little first-hand experience is behind the well-meaning advice, we have tested as much of it as possible.  We have not found a way to reliably elicit an attack.  In fact, in 43 years, we've never been attacked, even when holding screaming cubs in our hands with mother bears present.  We've seen lots of bluff charges, but no attacks.  The closest we’ve come to eliciting attacks is when we tackled bears, which we quit doing decades ago.  Of course, the bears bit and clawed their way free, but then they ran instead of attacking.  

What to do about a bear in your yard probably depends on how you feel about black bears.


Do you enjoy seeing wildlife on your property?

Watching a bear can be a wonderful experience.  As more people live close to their woodland homes, the chances of seeing black bears are rising.


One Eagles Nest resident who enjoys seeing wildlife recommends quietly observing from a distance.  Announce yourself so the bear knows you are present and you don't startle the animal.  If the bear knows you are there and is not stressed by your presence it is a wonderful time to study black bear behavior.  

  • Is it a youngster just after family breakup and afraid of its own shadow?  Afraid of being chased by mom?

  • Is it a mother with cubs?  Listen for the language she uses with her cubs.  Has she treed them for safety?  What are the personalities of the cubs?  Are some more confident and others timid?

  • Do you see more than one bear?  Are they friends?  Rivals?  Potential mates?

  • Is the bear foraging on vegetation in your yard?  Could what you thought was an alder bush really be beaked hazelnuts?



Would you prefer not to see black bears or have them on your property?


If you want the bear to leave:

  • Identify yourself as human

  • Yell, scuff your feet, wave objects, etc.

Ask yourself what brought the bear to your property.

  • Is the bear just passing through?  Bears have a right to monitor/mark their territory, seek food, and look for a mate.  We share the Northwoods with them. 

  • Have you inadvertently left out things that attracted them such as bird feeders or garbage?

  • Do you have fruit trees, a garden or other bear food growing on your property?


Contact the BearTeam to assess your property and help you remove attractants.



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