Close Encounter with a Black Bear: How to Prepare

Last month, local news and social media were abuzz with the report of a black bear spotted near the Medford side of the Fells.  This report joins similar bear sightings last year in local communities (including Burlington, Concord, and Newton) and aligns with regional trends in the past few years suggesting that the black bear population in Massachusetts, and the Northeast, is growing and expanding outside of its normal range.

For many of us who enjoy the outdoors in New England, the potential presence of black bears may be nothing new.  Whether backpacking across the White Mountains, camping in Maine’s Acadia National park, or just enjoying a picnic in the Berkshires, being “bear-minded” with our activities quickly becomes second nature.  But sometimes, it can be hard to remember that the same care and consideration is needed in our backyards and local parks if bears may be present.  Following a few simple guidelines can ensure that bears and humans can co-exist without conflict in our shared outdoor spaces.

Mass Audubon shares some guidelines on how to handle an encounter with a black bear:

  • If the bear does not see you, slowly and quietly back away while keeping your eyes on the bear, to determine whether or not it’s following you. Never approach a bear to get a better look or to take photos.
  • Do not try to run from a bear or climb a tree. A black bear can do both, and better than you!
  • If the bear is aware of your presence, make yourself look as large as possible, raise your arms, and hold-up your knapsack or a coat. Sing loudly or speak in a firm, non-threatening voice while backing away.
  • If the bear tries to approach, be aggressive: yell and wave your arms, jump up and down, blow a whistle or horn.
  • An agitated black bear will often huff, stamp its paws, and make a lot of noise to let you know it wants its space. Continue backing away.
  • Should the bear actually attack, roll onto your stomach or curl into a ball to protect your abdomen. Wrap your arms around your head to protect your neck and face. Remain on the ground until you’re absolutely sure the bear has moved on. also suggests what to do should you encounter a bear (face to face):

Remain calm, talk to the bear in a calm voice (say ‘Hey bear, hey bear!’) and slowly back away and leave the area. If a bear approaches or follows you, make yourself look bigger by putting your arms above your head. Continue to repeat “Hey bear” in a calm voice and back away and leave the area while monitoring the bear. If it continues to follow you, stand your ground, make yourself look bigger, shout at the bear, threaten the bear with whatever is at hand (bang a stick on the ground, clap your hands), and prepare to use bear pepper spray if it is available.

And MassWildlife (via moderator Charlene S. at FellsDOG) provides some preventative steps in your home and neighborhood:

Urge citizens and food-related businesses to remove or secure all food sources (bird feeders, trash, open compost, pet food, dumpsters associated with both apartments/condos and food businesses). If food is available, bears will continue to spend time in neighborhoods and back yards, even during the winter. Keep bears wild and out of trouble by taking preventive and responsible actions.

If a bear is in a situation that may be causing a public safety threat, contact MassWildlife or the Environmental Police. The presence of a bear in a densely populated area is not necessarily an immediate public safety threat.

black_bear_in_dumpsterIt is essential to remember that healthy black bears will only become a nuisance or a danger in response to the actions or inaction of the humans they come in contact with.  As reminds us,  “…people are responsible for increased human-bear conflicts by allowing bears to become human-food conditioned and human-habituated.”*
On a related note, according to‘s frequently asked questions about bears:

Is it safe to hike, run, bike or walk my dog in the woods?

Yes! It is safe to enjoy the outdoors regardless of what region of the state you live in. Dogs should always be leashed and supervised so that they can be kept under the owner’s direct control and avoid interactions with wildlife. Always be aware of your surroundings and if you happen to encounter a bear, enjoy the sighting! If the bear is unaware of your presence, then just back away and leave the bear alone. If the bear is aware of you, talk to the bear in a calm voice and back away.

If you do encounter a bear in your neighborhood, contact MassWildlife:

During business hours contact the Northeast District Office ‪(978) 772-2145 or MassWildlife Field Headquarters at ‪(508) 389-6322 to report sightings and get advice.

If you need advice outside normal business hours, on weekends, or holidays, contact the Environmental Police Radio Room at ‪1-800-632-8075.

Again, while preparation, knowledge, and discretion are important, we hope that, given the circumstance, you can safely enjoy a sighting!