By: Susan Gallagher, Chief Naturalist, Carbon County Environmental Center
Imagine a big stomach. No, a BIG stomach. A little bigger… little bigger… okay, good. Now give it a huge snout, capable of sniffing out up to 20,000 calories a day. Add four legs because, hey, all that food isn’t going to come to it. Drape the whole thing in some glossy black fur, tack on a stubby little tail, and what you have is a Pennsylvania Black Bear.
Think of a black bear as a digestive system on the prowl, and much of its behavior starts to make sense. Roaming more than a dozen miles in a night, raiding campsites, dumpsters and curbside trash bins are perfectly logical when the mission is to find food, and then to find more food. Food is also the reason black bears are a fairly common sight in the Poconos. The Poconos have plenty to eat in the way of acorns and other tree seeds, grasses, insects, carrion, fruit – there’s not much in Pocono forests that isn’t on the menu. Add some wetlands or mountain streams for keeping cool in summer and a few rocky den sites for shelter, and you have the perfect black bear habitat that is Northeast Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, some Pennsylvania highways slice right through that habitat, leading to the kind of bear encounter no one wants to have. Combine high speed travel, roads crowded with cars and trucks, poor or low visibility at night, and the next thing you know there’s a dead bear on the side of the road and an insurance deductible to pay. Since collisions with whitetail deer can be equally damaging, it’s best to obey Pennsylvania’s posted speed limits and avoid distracted driving. Stay especially alert while traveling at night or in early morning. In Carbon County, both Interstate 80 near Hickory Run State Park and Route 903 near Albrightsville are known for frequent bear crossings and wildlife collisions.
A far more common, and perhaps more expected, kind of bear encounter is that of a raiding bruin at the campsite. Black Bears have an incredible sense of smell, making it almost impossible to hide the fact you’ve been roasting hotdogs around the fire. As giant stomachs with feet, it’s no surprise black bears are sometimes attracted to campgrounds throughout the area. Local park directors, rangers and wildlife officers go to great lengths to prevent the occasional campsite raid from resulting in what’s termed a “nuisance” or “problem” bear. Bear-proof dumpsters are put in place. Black Bears are discouraged from associating campsites with food, sometimes with harmless scatter-shot, and visiting campers are reminded to keep food out of and away from tents or cabins. Incidentally, it may be more than food that attracts super-sniffing bears to a campsite; sweetly scented toiletries can do the same. For Black Bears, an animal whose sense of smell far surpasses that of humans, (and bloodhounds!) something like strawberry shampoo or soap may be enticing enough to warrant further investigation.
At all Pocono and northeast Pennsylvania area parks, bears and other wildlife are encouraged to develop a healthy fear of humans. This is as much for their sake as for our hikers and campers, since the story of an animal regularly looking for handouts rarely has a happy ending. Posters displayed at campsite check-ins sum it up in poetic brevity: A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear. This is a lesson we sometimes forget, especially when watching bears from the safety of our own homes. We’re pretty brave when we can toss marshmallows to a black bear from the security of a porch or deck, but meet that same animal along a wooded path, and it’s no fun trying to explain that you are out of marshmallows.
Encountering any wildlife on its home turf can be a moving experience, but there is something special about coming across a black bear in the woods. Here is an animal with teeth and claws, muscles and jaws, sufficient to do some serious harm. It’s not surprising that for some of us, wild bear sightings cause a certain amount of fear or anxiety. We become especially cautious if the black bear happens to be a mom with cubs in tow. Surprisingly, mother bears rarely turn out to be a serious threat; in fact, the vast majority of bears behaving badly toward humans turn out to be young males. To understand why, we need to consider some basic bear biology.
We’ll begin at the beginning, with a newborn bear cub. These adorable little bundles come into the world in January, while mom bear is snoozing in her winter den. Blind, nearly naked, and weighing in at around one pound, bear cubs grow quickly. By the time the family leaves the den in spring, the cubs are able to climb. This climbing ability sets black bears apart from their grizzly cousins to the west, and polar bears of the north. Having evolved in a forested landscape, our bears depend on oaks and maples for more than just food; trees offer safety. Given the choice between “fight or flight”, a black bear is pre-programmed to opt for flight up the nearest available tree. When confronted with anyone or anything perceived as a threat, mother bears generally shoo their young bear cubs upwards to safety. Trees can instantly defuse what might otherwise be a dangerous situation. Once the cubs are safe, mom is less agitated, and less likely to become aggressive. In addition to honing their climbing skills, bear cubs have a lot to learn from mom (males don’t help in raising the young) which explains why bear cubs stay with mama bear through their first winter. Late in the following spring, or early in the summer, these “teenagers” are kicked out on their own as mama bear starts work on the next litter. By June or July, year-and-a-half old cubs find themselves newly independent, and must come to terms with their destiny as walking stomachs.
Everything black bears encounter is food, unless and until proven otherwise. Logs are pawed through for insects; all manner of plant parts are sampled; carrion is inspected and taste-tested; and people are sometimes – yes, sometimes – followed as potential prey. This is where things can get a little scary. Time to seek counsel from Fred Merluzzi, local Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer. Having served more than 30 years with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Merluzzi speaks with the measured patience of a man who has mediated human-bear conflicts in the Poconos for a long, long time. “I wouldn’t call these ‘attacks’”, he advises. “They are more like ‘uncomfortable encounters’, and they all center around food.” Years ago, Merluzzi investigated the case of a teenage girl who had been knocked to the ground by a young bear. She was sniffed, pawed at gently, and her face was licked by the animal before it took off. “That sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. It all made sense when I found out the girl was walking through the woods on her way home from work at a fast food restaurant. She smelled like food.” Merluzzi suspects that bear was a young male, as most of his “problem” bears turn out to be. These male black bears may grow to be hundreds of pounds heavier than their female counterparts, and so must roam farther in search of food. This increases the odds they will cross paths with people, and anyone walking around smelling like a giant french fry is bound to elicit some curiosity.
So, what do you do if, all of a sudden, you find yourself being stalked like a lowly prey animal? Merluzzi’s advice is simple: don’t act like food. “Stand your ground. Don’t lay down and don’t run. If you are in a group, bunch together. Do whatever you can to make yourself look bigger and more threatening. Send a message that you’re not worth the hassle.” Merluzzi recommends hikers and campers in Pennsylvania’s bear country consider pepper spray. “Carry it, but don’t use it unless you have to.” Will you have to? Chances are the answer is no. Most black bear encounters here in the Poconos and northeast Pennsylvania are anything but “uncomfortable”. Every once in a while a bruin may raid the garbage cans or knock down a few bird feeders; a few may become too cozy at local campsites and require intervention by park staff or game officers, but the vast majority of these animals maintain that healthy fear of humans so important for their own survival.
Pennsylvania black bears have managed not only to survive, but to thrive in our midst. They are among the largest in the world, and the Pocono region boasts some real record-holders. Bears in excess of 800 pounds are not unheard of. The skull of the third-largest road-killed bear in the Commonwealth is on display at Carbon County Environmental Education Center, not far from where it met with ill fate on an area roadway. Tourists and other visitors are often drawn here with the hope of glimpsing one of these big guys. When that happens, it’s unforgettable.
Imagine hiking a lonely trail, surrounded by the thick greenery of summer. There’s rustling in the laurels ahead, the crack of dry branches underfoot and maybe a soft chuffing sound – all indicating the approach of something big. Suddenly, there he is, and you’re too captivated by that mass of biological beauty to be frightened. You watch for a moment, rooted to the ground. Then the wind changes direction, carrying your scent to a wide snout. He’s off, his bulk disappearing slowly back into the thicket. You’ve just been reminded that wild things and wild places still exist here in the Poconos.
You’ve had a bear encounter of the best kind.