Are Black Bears Dangerous?

While they tend to be less aggressive than other bear species, attacks still happen

Close-up of black bear walking among pine trees

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Although fatal black bear attacks are generally rare, especially when compared to attacks from other bear species, these animals can still be extremely dangerous. Many researchers believe that the apparent increase in reported bear attacks is directly related to an increase in outdoor recreation, human populations, and development.

In most cases, black bears are relatively shy, only acting aggressively as a last resort. Nevertheless, the most effective way to avoid a bear attack is by preventing encounters in the first place. Just because black bears can be less dangerous than other large carnivores doesn’t mean fatal attacks don’t occur. Education on proper outdoor etiquette in bear habitats can help reduce your risk.

How Can You Tell a Black Bear From a Grizzly?

Side profile of black bear walking through a meadow

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Let's start with the basic question: How does one distinguish a black bear from its notably more aggressive counterpart, the grizzly? And no, it's not all about the color.

Sometimes black bears have light fur and grizzlies have dark fur that make it difficult to tell which is which just by color. Instead, look at the animal's face. Black bears have long snouts and pointed ears whereas grizzlies have more of a dished face profile and rounded ears. Black bears are generally smaller and have shorter claws than grizzlies. Grizzlies have a distinguishing hump between their shoulders.

Understanding Black Bear Behavior

While the black bear was previously grouped with more aggressive species like grizzly bears, experts say that they’re actually comparatively timid. According to Dr. Lynn Rogers, founder of the North American Bear Center, grizzlies are more than 20 times more dangerous than black bears, who display aggression when they’re nervous. The 750,000 black bears living in North America kill less than one human per year on average.

The expert also hypothesized that black bears are actually more timid because they evolved alongside now-extinct predators like saber-toothed cats and dire wolves. “Black bears were the only one of these that could climb trees, so black bears survived by staying near trees and developing the attitude: run first and ask questions later. The timid ones passed on their genes to create the black bear of today,” wrote Dr. Rogers. Most attacks are defensive reactions to humans who get too close.

A young black bear scavenging for food on a dumpster
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Black bears tend to be solitary creatures outside of the mating season. They have a powerful sense of smell, a trait that sometimes leads them into campgrounds and other human territory where food has been left unattended. If a black bear finds a food source without any perceived threats, they’re likely to come back to it.

“Nuisance bears,” or bears that have become less fearful of humans, can accumulate in areas adjacent to wild habitats. Often, subadult males that are still learning how to find their own food without their mothers' help come across trash in someone’s yard or dumpster, associating the area with easy food rather than human territory. When bears are more accustomed to people, there are more opportunities for human-wildlife conflict.

Causes of Black Bear Aggression

A team led by University of Calgary professor Dr. Stephen Herrero, author of “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” studied fatal attacks by black bears on people in the U.S. from 1900 to 2009. Published in 2011, the paper revealed that 63 people were killed in 59 incidents throughout the 48 lower states, Alaska, and Canada, 88% of which involved a bear exhibiting predatory behavior.

Interestingly enough, the study reflected both biological and behavioral differences between males and females; 92% of fatal black bear attacks were predatory and involved a single, lone male bear, indicating that females protecting cubs may not be the most dangerous type of black bear.

Black bear in meadow showing teeth

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Most fatal attacks also took place during August, when black bears search for high-energy foods in preparation for hibernation. August also happens to be a popular time of year for hiking, which leads to a higher chance of human-bear interactions.

Human behavior considered to be risky includes leaving children unattended, walking dogs off-leash, hunting, engaging in outdoor activities at night or twilight, and approaching females with cubs. These behaviors were involved in almost half of 700 attacks studied between 1955 and 2016.

“Each year, millions of interactions between people and black bears occur without any injury to a person, although by 2 years of age most black bears have the physical capacity to kill a person,” the study said. “Although the risk of a black bear fatally attacking a person is low, it does exist.” Findings suggest that, since most fatal black bear attacks occur when bears hunt humans as a source of food, people can learn to recognize predatory behavior in bears in order to mitigate incidents.

Chances of Being Attacked by a Black Bear

Even in a place like Yellowstone National Park, known for hosting a decent-sized grizzly population, the National Park Service puts the risk of injury by bear at one in 2.7 million visits.

Between 2000 and 2017, people in Alaska—where bears are even more abundant—were 27 times more likely to be hospitalized for a bicycle accident and 71 times more likely to be hospitalized for an ATV or snow machine accident than from a bear attack. A total of 82% of bear-related hospital visits ended in discharges, and 46% of victims were employed in outdoor industries. A majority (96%) of attacks involved grizzly bears, while just 4% involved black bears.

A 2018 study comparing wild carnivore attacks in urban areas found black bears to be the second-least likely to attack, behind wolves. The bears typically attacked in areas with less development. Once the sun goes down, black bears are more likely to attack in darker areas than coyotes, and they're more likely to attack people who are alone or with a pet. Indeed, 66% of attacks recorded were directly related to the presence of dogs, suggesting humans were not the target.

Black bears in urban habitats tend to change their activity to avoid humans; even in wilder habitats, most black bears are diurnal to avoid people and other bears.

What to Do if You See a Black Bear

Cars waiting for black bear to cross the road

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The NPS urges visitors to follow proper viewing etiquette to avoid encounters altogether. These include:

  • Keep a distance of at least 300 feet (20 car lengths).
  • Pay close attention to surroundings.
  • Announce yourself by making noise to avoid accidentally sneaking up on a bear.
  • Never put yourself between a female and her cubs.
  • Carry Environmental Protection Agency-approved bear repellent pepper spray, especially while exploring the backcountry and traveling or hiking in groups.

If you do encounter a bear, here's what the NPS suggests you do:

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear can distinguish you from a prey animal.
  • Stay calm.
  • Pick up small children and dogs right away.
  • Make yourself look larger.
  • Don’t allow the bear access to your food.
  • Don’t drop your pack.
  • Move away slowly and sideways, but only if the bear is sitting still. Do not run or attempt to scale a tree (black bears are great climbers).
  • Leave an escape route open so that the bear can leave.
  • When it leaves and you feel safe, exit or detour the area.

Most importantly, know the difference between grizzly bear attacks and black bear attacks, as the defense strategy is different for each species. In the case of black bears, do not play dead. Attempt to escape to a secure place like a car or building. If escape isn’t possible and as a last resort, it's recommended to fight back by concentrating kicks and blows to the animal’s face and muzzle. This is absolutely not recommended in grizzly bear attacks.

View Article Sources
  1. Rogers, Lynn. "How Dangerous Are Black Bears?" North American Bear Center.

  2. Herrero, Stephen, et al. "Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People: 1900–2009." The Journal of Wildlife Management, vol. 75, no. 3, 2011, pp. 596-603, doi:10.1002/jwmg.72

  3. Penteriani, Vincenzo, et al. "Human Behaviour Can Trigger Large Carnivore Attacks in Developed Countries." Scientific Reports, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1038/srep20552

  4. "Bear-Inflicted Human Injuries and Fatalities in Yellowstone." Yellowstone National Park.

  5. Coughlin, Laura, and Deborah Hull-Jilly. "Hospitalizations and Deaths Resulting from Bear Attacks — Alaska, 2000–2017." State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin. 2019.

  6. Bombieri, Giulia, et al. "Patterns of Wild Carnivore Attacks on Humans in Urban Areas." Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-36034-7

  7. "Staying Safe Around Bears." National Park Service.