By Aislinn Sarnacki
When my boyfriend Derek returned early from mountain biking in Orono last week, I figured he had popped a tire or something. I never would have guessed what had actually happened.
“I ran into a black bear,” he said, slumping down in the lawn chair beside me. He looked a bit shocked, understandably.
Eventually, I got the story out of him in bits and pieces. And I could tell it to you accurately, I’m sure, but I think it would be better if you heard it from Derek. So I asked him to write his experience down, and he obliged:
“I was biking along alone last week at a slow but consistent rate,” Derek wrote. “Being that it was one of the first few times being out this year, I was fatigued but still able to move forward. I decided to start behind the Orono School and planned to travel around for an hour and a half or so to catch a good workout and familiarize myself with the trails.
“I ended up on some single-track trails that were not so regularly traveled. I was huffing and puffing along at my own pace when I looked up far ahead and noticed a large, furry creature with a big black nose. I instantly stopped. We were about 50 yards away at this point.
“I realized that it was a bear that I was sharing a stare with. I decided it was a good idea to travel in the opposite direction, as he was right in the trail ahead. I wasn’t 100 percent on where I was, but I thought moving away from the bear would be best.
“I ended up taking the wrong turn to find another way out. I wasn’t able to find the original trail I came in on and I started bushwhacking towards a light spot in the woods, assuming this to be an opening that could get me to the road a bit faster. I was looking over my shoulder pretty consistently at this point, and I noticed that the bear was still looking at me and was closer than before, even though I was moving away at a good pace while pushing my bike through the woods.
“I ended up on what was the end of Page Place by the State Police Department in Orono. I [was] able to get on my bicycle and pedal on the dirt portion of the road until I hit pavement.”
The encounter lasted about five minutes, Derek told me.
“Any idea how big the bear was?” I asked him. “A baby? As big as Oreo [our 45-pound dog]? Bigger?”
“It seemed to be much bigger than Oreo,” he said.
He reported the incident to the police, and they relayed his email to the Maine Warden Service.
A few days later, I decided to tell my mother about Derek’s experience.
“The bear chased him,” I said.
“Actually, he followed me,” Derek amended. “The bear would have been able to catch me if he wanted to.”
Good point. Young, lean black bears can run up to 30 miles per hour, according to the North American Bear Center. The world’s fastest human runners average about 23 miles per hour at a dead sprint.
Derek said he’d best describe the bear as “curious.”
What bothered him the most about the situation is that he didn’t know what to do. He’d heard all sorts of theories about how a person should act if they come across a black bear, but in the moment, he simply acted on instinct. He turned around and high-tailed it out of there.
So I called up state black bear biologist Jennifer Vashon, who directed me to the document “Recommendations for Human – Black Bear Encounters” developed by the Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee. According to the document, in general, when you encounter a black bear you should:
-Remain calm. Don’t run from the bear. Don’t climb trees to escape a bear.
-Ensure the bear has an escape route.
-Back away when possible.
-If attacked, immediately fight back.
-Don’t feed bears.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife plans to link this document about human-black bear encounters to their future website devoted to black bear education, Vashon said.
“[Derek] was on a bike, so that gives him a little bit of an advantage because he looked bigger,” Vashon said of Derek’s encounter. “They don’t have very good vision, so often in that type of situation, the bear will be trying to figure out what you are. The bigger you appear, the better.”
A person in such a situation should back away rather than turn their back, Vashon said, mainly so they can keep an eye on the bear.
“It’s a very rare thing, but black bears can be predatory where they view a person as prey,” Vashon said. “And they will actually hunt them down and kill them … Prey runs, so predators tend to go after runners.”
A tragic example of this behavior, Vashon said, is the fatal black bear attack that occurred in 2006 in Tennessee. Unprovoked, a black bear attacked and killed a 6-year-old girl in Cherokee National Forest. The girl ran down a trail after the bear attacked and mauled both her mother and 2-year-old brother, both of whom survived, according to an Associated Press story of the incident.
“Things like that don’t happen very often,” Vashon said. “Most bears will respond when they see a person by running the other way.”
Sometimes black bears — particularly females with cubs — will bluff charge at a person who they think is too close, Vashon said.
“The bear will come running up to you, and it’s pretty scary,” Vashon said. “She might also stomp her feet on the ground and pop her jaws, basically telling you to back off. And they can also swat at you.”
If the bear gets more aggressive than that, experts say to fight back.
“Those people who survived a black bear attack have survived by fighting it,” Vashon said. “So that’s the suggestion by state agencies. Grab whatever you have at hand — a stick, a knife — fight with whatever you’ve got.”
Listening to Derek’s experience with the Orono bear, Vashon suspects it could be one of the three yearlings (1-year-old bears) discovered in a hollow tree den in Orono in March. The young bears were known for walking in residential areas and destroying garbage cans to find food.
The warden service has reports that these particular bears were being hand-fed last fall, and so the bears may now associate humans with food.
Local game wardens attempted to trap the bears to relocate them this spring. In June they were successful in trapping a female black bear that they assume is the yearlings’ mother. She was released in a rural location north of Macwahoc. The yearlings, however, were not captured.
“There was probably about a 10- to 14-day effort put in,” said local Game Warden Jim Fahey. “They’re still around, maybe as far east and south as Veazie.”
When state biologists weighed the three yearlings in their Orono den this March, each yearling weighed between 75 and 100 pounds, Fahey said. The trio would have naturally left their mother this spring or summer to live as solitary, independent bears.
“Removing her wasn’t disrupting any sort of balance,” Fahey said. “They’re young adult bears, self-sufficient enough to be on their own.”
To learn more about Maine’s black bears, visit www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/species/mammals/bear.html