Bears have been around for a long time. They walked the earth at the same time as saber-tooth cats, cave lions, and dire wolves. Humans are a relatively recent addition to their list of things to fear, but what exactly makes bears scared of humans?
One of the main reasons bears fear humans is because a standing human doesn’t look much different from a standing bear, which can mean danger to smaller or female bears. Other reasons include humans invading, taking over their territory, our social nature, and the noisiness of being human.
The old adage ‘they’re more scared of you than you are of them’ is true most of the time for bears. Let’s check out why these enormous creatures shy away from people.
Do Bears Try To Avoid Humans?
Living in bear country means understanding the behavior of bears to avoid, or at least mitigate, encounters with bears.
The two most common bears that interact with humans are black bears and brown bears. Adding together their habitats, brown bears and black bears occupy most of North America.
Unfortunately, because humans have displaced so many bears and cut down their natural habitat, a lot of bears are forced to live close to human civilization.
Despite the tastiness of food scraps or an alluring campfire meal, bears try to avoid humans at all costs. An article published in the Journal of Movement Ecology found that bears living near humans often altered their activity, so they are most active when humans are asleep.
Bears avoid areas of dense human populations from dawn until dusk. They choose to invade garbage cans and investigate bird feeders more often at night when they were less likely to interact with people.
Why Bears Are Scared Of Humans
Bears are big animals. Most of the time, they outweigh us. They’re faster than us, and they have enormous claws and fangs. Why in the world would they be afraid of us humans?
When it boils down to it, the only reason bears (and many other large predators) are afraid of humans is that we look tougher than we are. We’re also pretty noisy and social beings, which intimidates your average bear.
Let’s dive into some specifics of why bears fear humans.
1. Bears Mistake Us For Other Bears
Being bipedal has some major advantages. One of those is we’re taller than most predators and appear intimidating.
Other animals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, stand on their hind legs when interacting with other animals. They do so to appear larger than they are and intimidate predators.
According to an article in the Journal of Behavior, bears may confuse humans with other bears who are standing on their hind legs.
There are some misconceptions about bears standing on their hind legs. Many people believe this to be an intimidation tactic. In reality, most bears stand on their hind legs to get a better look at something.
That being said, just the presence of another bear is enough to scare other bears away. This is especially true of juvenile bears and female bears with cubs who are very wary of adult male bears who may be aggressive toward them.
So, if you happen across a juvenile or female bear, being a slow but bipedal human is a good thing! You’re likely to scare the bear away simply because they think you’re another bear standing on its hind legs.
2. Bears Are Scared Of Other Apex Predators
If you think about the natural world, most predators prey on the weak. Either the too young, the too old, or the sick.
Predators choose this type of prey because it is easier to take down. For example, it’s far easier to take down a calf than a full-grown moose. The predator spends less energy and is in less danger, but still gets a prize for their effort, albeit a smaller prize.
Humans typically only go after adult prey like fully grown deer, elk, caribou, etc. To bears, we appear as apex predators like themselves, and therefore, are something to be feared.
This fear is born from the need to survive. Think of an encounter between a bear and a wolf or mountain lion. If a fight would break out, it would likely injure both parties to some degree, and potentially even kill. This is the last thing an animal who is already struggling to survive wants to do.
It not only expends a lot of energy fighting another large animal, but a wounded animal is vulnerable to predators. For bears, this can even mean other bears.
3. Bears Are Scared Of Social Predators
Being social is part of being human. All people enjoy being around other people to one degree or another, from introverts to extroverts.
This social behavior isn’t just a fun way to pass the time out at a bar, it’s in our genes! Animals have adapted to living in groups to better their chances of survival.
Chimpanzees have shown group efforts to deter predators by banding together and driving the predator away. This is seen in elephant herds and many other social animals.
So, why are bears so afraid of social animals?
It’s not so much that they’re afraid of being run off as they are of being preyed on. Back in the day (like waaay back in the day), bears used to be preyed on by packs of lions and packs of dire wolves.
Remember how we mentioned above bears see us as apex predators? To a bear, seeing a group of humans is more similar to seeing a pack of lions than a herd of deer. To them, a pack of humans is something they want to be far, far away from.
4. Bears Are Wary Of Hunters
Going after bears is an ancient practice that still lives on in today’s culture. Nowadays, we don’t use sharpened sticks, but high-powered rifles and high-tech bows.
The advancements made in sporting gear have not only made the process faster and more humane but it’s also made the sport louder.
Just like most animals, bears are fearful of loud noises. If you live anywhere near land open to go after these four legged beasts, you’re probably familiar with how loud the whole process can be.
However, the loud crack of a shot being fired isn’t the only thing that scares bears during season.
According to an article in the Journal of Behavioral Processes, black bears can perceive when the sporting season begins and will stay clear of the area during the entire season before shots have even went off.
During the study, when human began increasing traffic on dirt roads to scope out potential sporting areas, bears began increasing their distance from dirt roads and decreasing their distance from paved roads.
In the off-season, the opposite is true because bears have learned that going near paved roads increases the risk of vehicular collisions. However, during season, bears know they are safer near paved roads than they are near dirt roads.
Pretty smart, right?!
5. Bears Are Scared of Common Human Noises
There’s no doubt about it – humans are loud! We drive our cars, ride in planes, blare our music, honk our horns, shoot our guns, and yell at things and other people.
All the noisiness of humanity is startling to bears. Ever hear someone walking in the woods saying “hey bear,” every couple of minutes? This is a great way to avoid having an encounter with a bear.
Something as simple as the human voice is enough to scare most bears. But why exactly are bears afraid of human noises?
The main reason is because of the novelty of the noise. A car backfiring or the sound of an engine revving isn’t something a bear hears every day. It puts bears on red alert until they can understand what the noise is and if it’s a threat or not.
Most bears do not have enough experience with human noise to associate it with something ‘safe.’ So, they categorize human noises as ‘dangerous’ until proven otherwise by learning.
6. Humans Have Invaded Bear Territory
Over the last century, humans have expanded their territory exponentially. Mountains, deserts, and large forests are no longer a hindrance to human development.
During this expansion, humans extirpated several large carnivores like wolves, mountain lions, and bears. Since humans have displaced many bears, it’s made them wary of us.
This is a learned behavior they develop after repeated exposure to humans. Bears have ‘learned’ that when forests are being cleared for housing developments, they need to scurry off to a different area or risk being tracked down or removed.
7. Humans Are More ‘Bear Aware’
With knowledge becoming more and more accessible to the vast majority, people are more aware than ever of how to handle wildlife.
There has certainly been a shift away from simply eliminating nuisance bears to understanding why bears become a nuisance in the first place. This has benefitted bears tremendously by promoting people to keep wildlife wild.
In a sense, to keep wildlife wild, we need to keep wildlife afraid of humans. Instead of eliminating a nuisance bear, people are learning to employ scare tactics:
- Banging pots and pans
- Spraying with a hose
- Motion sensor lights
- Loud music
These tactics help bears learn to be afraid of humans. So far, it’s working! The average bear that comes across a human is still frightened of us.
Are Bears Scared of Dogs?
Bears are scared of humans, but what about dogs? If you bring Fido along on your hike, can you expect him to keep bears away?
Bears are not scared of dogs. Bears see dogs as a threat to themselves and any nearby cubs if present and will aggressively defend themselves against dogs.
A study done from 2000 to 2017 on non-fatal attacks by black bears in the U.S. found that 25% of all black bear attacks involved a dog. Of those, 79% involved an off-leash dog.
What To Do When Bears Aren’t Scared Of You
The vast majority of bears are too afraid of humans to come near them, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, bears overcome their fear of humans and will approach people or campsites.
The main reason bears will overcome their fear of humans is because of food rewards. If a bear has visited a place where it has gotten food before, it will expect to get food again.
This doesn’t mean the bear is a danger or aggressive, but it means it is probably a bit bolder than your average bear.
The best way to deal with a bold bear is to continue trying to scare it:
- Speak in a loud, low voice
- Stand tall
- Hold your ground, even if the bear charges
- Make loud noises
- Use bear mace, such as Personal Security Products Alaska Maximum Strength Bear Spray, as a last resort.
The best way to keep bears wild is to avoid attracting them near humans in the first place. Be sure to secure your trash, keep your yard clean, install bear-proof bird feeders, and never intentionally feed bears.
When camping, be sure to keep all your food items out of reach of bears when you are away from your campsite or at night. Selkirk Designs makes an Ultralight Food Bag Hanging System that comes with everything you need to hang a bear bag while camping.
You should also avoid certain scents that attract bears as well.
Wrapping Things Up
There’s something special about being in the outdoors, hiking on backcountry trails, and camping with no one else in sight.
Any avid hiker knows that there are certain animals you must be wary of while enjoying the outdoors, and bears are one of them.
For the most part, bears are pretty scared of humans. To recap, here are the 7 reasons bears are scared of humans:
- They mistake us for other bears
- Bears are scared because we are apex predators
- They think we are social predators
- Bears are wary of hunters
- Bears are scared of common human noises
- We displaced/extirpated bears
- Humans are more ‘bear aware’ and employ hazing/scare tactics
If you encounter a bear while hiking, there’s no need to panic. Most bears can be scared away just from the simple noise of your voice.
If you are experiencing a nuisance bear and can’t seem to solve the problem, you can always contact a professional! Our nationwide pest control finder can get you in contact with a wildlife professional near you.
Nevin, O. T., & Gilbert, B. K. (2005, February). Perceived risk, displacement and refuging in brown bears: positive impacts of ecotourism? Biological Conservation, 121(4), 611-622.
Stillfried, M., Belant, J. L., Svoboda, N. J., Beyer, D. E., & Kramer-Schadt, S. (2015, November). When top predators become prey: Black bears alter movement behavior in response to hunting pressure. Behavioral Processes, 120, 30-39.
Stringham, S. F., & Rogers, L. L. (2017, July 11). Fear of Humans by Bears and Other Animals (Anthropophobia): How Much is Natural? Journal of Behavior, 2(2).
Suraci, J. P., Clinchy, M., Zanette, L. Y., & Wilmers, C. C. (2019, July 17). Fear of humans as apex predators has landscape-scale impacts from mountain lions to mice. Ecology Letters, 22(10), 1578-1586.
Zeller, K. A., Wattles, D. W., Conlee, L., & DeStefano, S. (2019, July 11). Black bears alter movements in response to anthropogenic features with time of day and season. Movement Ecology, 7(19).
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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