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Black bear encounters depend on bear's personality.

Byline: HUNTING by Gary Lewis For The Register-Guard

WHEN LEWIS AND CLARK traveled through the Pacific Northwest almost 200 years ago, both grizzly bears and black bears roamed the wilderness that is now Oregon and Washington.

The explorers encountered numerous bears as they traveled across the country.

Only the black bears were able to find a way to co-exist with the tide of humanity that followed Lewis and Clark west.

By the end of the 1930s there were no more grizzly bears left in our state.

Biologists have classified two types of black bears in Oregon - the Olympic black bear of the Cascades and Coast Range, and the Idaho black bear.

The latter is sometimes not black at all, but brown, blonde or cinnamon color. In parts of British Columbia and Alaska, blue and white phases of the black bear can be found.

It has been my good fortune to encounter more than a dozen black bears in the last few years. I have also encountered a number of self-professed black bear experts who base their opinions on what they saw on the Disney channel or glimpsed in Yellowstone.

What I have learned is that you cannot safely characterize bears.

Roland Cheek, in his book "Learning to Talk Bear," said, "Attitudes about bears differ among people, and so also, it seems, attitudes toward humans differ among bears."

Every bruin is an individual. Generalizations about bear behavior are about as reliable as generalizations about groups of people.

The first bear I ever saw was a big, black animal that we smelled before we saw him. He stood up on his hind legs to look at us from just 20 yards away.

I had been camping with a friend, hunting rabbits in the evening. We didn't find any rabbits but we did find a bear.

I'm glad I didn't have to defend myself with that single-shot .22. We walked carefully away, with many a glance over our shoulders.

Sometimes you have encounters with bears you don't see. Hunting along the Rogue River once, I walked down a trail, returning 15 minutes later to find large paw prints over my own tracks.

Hunting elk by myself in the Elkhorns, I spotted a bear and sat down and called him with a predator call in the waning evening hours.

I found his tracks where he circled me in the gathering dusk, but he didn't come close enough to let me see him again. It was a long, eerie walk back to my lonely camp.

Another time, I surprised a bear in the act of stealing honey from a bee's nest. We were both startled.

He got into motion before I could nock an arrow, running through the sword ferns and clearing fallen logs with a swarm of angry bees hot on his trail.

Some bears are not afraid of humans. These are usually bears that are used to handouts and garbage cans.

I met one such on an Alaskan highway, a 2-year-old, lying in the road with its head on its paws like a dog waiting for his master.

When we slowed down to look, it got up and ambled to the window of the truck, standing up on his hind legs to peer in. He looked in at us, staring back at him like so many wide-eyed sardines in a big tin can.

Some people have the idea that the black bear is endangered. This may be because they don't see any as they drive through a national forest on the way to the beach or to a ski resort.

The fact is that black bears are increasing in number across much of their range.

Biologists estimate that we now have close to 30,000 in Oregon.

Many Oregon hunters will be hoping to do their part to slow the population growth in the coming weeks. The fall general black bear season opens Aug. 1.

Every bear is different.

When startled, some will run away. Others may attack. Not all black bears are afraid of you. If they were afraid, they wouldn't come into camp in the middle of the night to eat your groceries.

Toothaches (bears don't go to the dentist), belly aches (bears eat anything) and hangovers (bears are fond of fermented fruit) can make them touchy.

As you hunt, fish, hike or camp in bear country, avoid confrontations with bears, especially sows with cubs.

Don't feed them!

And don't keep food in your tent. You cannot predict how one bear will react based upon the actions of the last one you saw.

When Lewis and Clark passed this way, grizzly bears were dominant, but they have been replaced by a more dangerous dominant civilization.

The unpredictable black bear has adapted well to the new regime.

Gary Lewis is a Bend free-lance writer. He can be reached via www.huntingoregon.net.
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Title Annotation:Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jul 11, 2002
Words:810
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