(WJHL) — Bear attacks do not pose a likely risk while venturing into the wilderness; in fact, wildlife officials say they have not reported any in Northeast Tennessee.
A Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) spokesperson stressed how rare black bear attacks are — even in areas with higher bear and human population densities. The TWRA has only reported East Tennessee bear attacks that are south of Knoxville.
“The estimated 750,000 black bears of North America kill less than one person per year on average,” said TWRA’s Matthew Cameron. “Your chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, lightning, or another human are vastly greater.”
With that said, what is there to do on the off chance one charges or even attacks? Many know the general safety tips to avoid bear encounters in the first place, and even that is easy; the slightest noise — like the crunch of a leaf — tends to steer them away in the wilderness.
But what should be the course of action during a rare attack? Unlike the advice given to those who come across grizzly bears in the Pacific Northwest, the best bet to making it out of a black bear attack alive is to stand your ground.
According to National Parks officials, there are two types of charges: a bluff charge and an aggressive charge — the former being much more common.
“Bluff charges are meant to scare or intimidate,” said the National Parks Service in an article on bear attacks. “When a bear bluff charges, it will have its head and ears up and forward. The bear will puff itself up to look bigger.
“It will bound on its front paws toward you (moving in big leaps), but then stop short or veer off to one side. Often bears retreat after a bluff charge, or they may vocalize loudly.”
Slowly back away if this happens, and be sure to wave your arms above your head and talk to the bear in a calm voice. Retreat slowly while keeping an eye on the bear, and never attempt to run away; that could trigger an attack.
Aggressive charges look a bit different. Wildlife officials say in these instances, bears may yawn or clack their teeth, huff and pound their front paws on the ground.
“These behaviors indicate that a bear is stressed, and it may be getting ready to charge,” said the National Parks Services. “It will have its head down and ears pointed back, and the bear will come at you like a freight train. Be ready to protect and defend yourself!”
The best defense against aggressive bear charges and bear attacks is a red pepper oil spray known as bear spray. The substance is strong enough to inflame the eyes and upper respiratory system.
“Bear spray is recommended over a firearm to deter an approaching bear,” said Cameron. “Using a firearm during a bear attack may only worsen the attack. An injured bear will be more aggressive, especially during a fight.”
Cameron said that many people fear that using bear spray against a charging black bear would anger it, causing it to flee and then return to attack; however, that is not the case.
“The truth is they don’t go away mad; they just go away,” said Cameron, who also mentioned that the barrier from the bear spray’s fog creates a wall, allowing the user to leave the area.
Black bear charges are rare; even rarer is when the black bear contacts you — that is when you fight back.
“FIGHT BACK with anything at hand — knife, sticks, rocks, binoculars, backpack or by kicking,” Cameron said. “DO NOT play dead.”
National Park authorities also warned against using a firearm at any point during a bear attack. Animal behaviorists say an injured bear is much more aggressive, which worsens the attack.
When black bears attack, most of the time it is easily avoidable, according to Cameron, who said most attacks are bears’ defensive reactions against those who have encroached on their territory. Defensive attacks — such as the one where a tourist in Gatlinburg was injured in October, according to Cameron — are generally not fatal.
“Although the bear obviously should not have been inside the cabin, it reacted defensively to the man who surprised it,” Cameron said of the incident.
Defensive attacks can be avoided by abiding to park rules. The National Parks Service prohibits parkgoers from willfully approaching bears within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs or displaces the bear. This is a federal regulation that can result in fines and fees.
Offensive attacks — also known as predatory attacks — are extremely rare occurrences when a black bear seeks out a human as prey.
“Offensive attacks include the majority of human deaths by black bears,” said Cameron. “These are generally unprovoked predatory attacks in remote areas where bears have little contact with people. Fortunately, bears that visit campgrounds, bird feeders, and garbage cans almost never kill people, even though these bears have by far the most contact with people.”
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