The Bear Man

Guest blog by Gene Walz, Friend of VINS

          Bears understand us better than we understand them.

That’s one of the many take-away insights that Ben Kilham revealed to a packed audience at VINS at his June 19 talk. In other words, bears are not the simple dangerous brutes many people fear. 
The Bear Man, as he is called, knows his bears, black bears, specifically. He’s raised, rehabilitated, and released back into the wild over 100 orphaned or injured bears. He’s studied their behavior first-hand. He’s written about them in a highly regarded book Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition. And his work has been the subject of several feature documentaries on Discovery and National Geographic channels. 
The Social Black Bear was Kilham’s VINS topic. It was based on more than 1,000 social interactions that he has documented on his wooded acreage in LymeNew Hampshire. Among the areas he covered in a fast-paced and convincingly illustrated talk were bear friendships, anatomy and mating habits, diet, territorial ranges, hierarchies, justice, and “reciprocal altruism” (tolerance of other bears on home territory).
Between 5,000 and 6,000 black bears live in Vermont, more than 5,000 in New Hampshire, and over 20,000 in Maine. So it’s important to know about them.
Males have a home range of around 200 square miles; females require only 5 to 8 square miles. They find each other by leaving scent marks on trees and bushes and pathways. Mating season runs from late May until the first week in July, with partnerships lasting between three and seven days. Only 10% of male bears, those weighing over 300 pounds, can actually mate.
After winter hibernation, mother bears emerge from their dens in early to mid-April with, on average, two cubs – although, surprisingly, as many as seven have been produced. Male cubs are evicted from the mother’s home territory after the first year; females become part of a strict hierarchy overseen by the dominant matriarch. Rules and punishment are strict.
Jack-in-the-pulpit roots are black bears’ most important food source, moreso than acorns and beech nuts, which are staples. Their favorite and most nutritious food is black oil sunflower seeds. Thus the cause of many bear-human encounters – near bird feeders.
The focus of many questions after the lively talk and the subject of the final chapter of Kilham’s book deal with this topic. What should people do when facing a black bear?
Kilham’s answer: hold your position, keep your eyes firmly on the bear, and speak softly but firmly to it. If threatened, bears may engage in false charges. Do not panic. Watch their faces, eyes, and ears for their emotional expressions.
Bears avoid people whenever possible. They know better. If people knew as much about bears as bears know about people, there’d be far fewer conflicts, far fewer headlines. Still, there have only been 67 deaths from black bears in the past one hundred years. We are much more dangerous to them than they are to us.

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