Bear Awareness

In the early days of the state of Arkansas, our unofficial motto was “The Bear State”, because there were so many living here. Bear bacon was one of our top exports in those days, and “bear grease” was used for soap and candles. During the 1850s, however, hunting and habitat loss caused the population to dwindle significantly. Logging became a profitable industry for Arkansas after the Civil War, and by the 1930s some estimated that there were only about 50 black bears living in the wooded areas still remaining.

Between the years of 1958 and 1968, just over 250 black bears were reintroduced to the state. Hunting regulations were put in place and habitat areas were improved in the Ouchita and Ozark mountain areas, providing the protection they needed to experience one of the most successful reintroductions ever achieved of a large carnivorous animal species. It’s believed that something around 3,000 black bears now make Arkansas home.

So, what does that mean to you when you’re out and about on a beautiful autumn day in the Ozarks? The good news is that ideal bear habitat is usually pretty inaccessible to humans. They prefer dense undergrowth, which means areas that are regularly used by us and maintained to make use of the forest easier are not on their list for their preferred neighborhood. They are also very shy animals, and would prefer to run the opposite direction if they hear you coming.
That said, an adult black bear can have a habitat area of anywhere from 5 to 30 miles in size – and the oak and hickory trees that are predominant in our Ozark mountains are perfect feeding ground for them. So, it’s better to be safe than sorry when out in the woods. Here are some things to remember to help you stay safe:

  • Keep your eyes open for signs of bears. Rotted tree logs that have been pulled apart as a bear looks for insects, or foot prints in soft dirt or mud are both indicators of a local bear. They drink lots of water, so if you’re going to be near a river or lake you should keep your eyes open.
  • Don’t worry about disturbing the peace when you’re on the trail. Bears and other animals will appreciate the warning and give you the right-of-way if you let them know you’re coming. We’ve got bear bells at Uncle Sam’s so you can jungle all the way.
  • If you are in bear country and come upon a patch of wild berries, be very careful about approaching it, as it’s likely the local bears know it’s there as well and could come to eat with you.
  • If you do run across a bear unexpectedly, the first thing to do is stay calm. Stand your ground (if you run, it may chase you) and make lots of noise to try to scare it away. Bang on trees with a stick, throw rocks… it’s just as worried about you as you are about it. Contrary to stories you may have heard, playing dead is not recommended in most bear encounters.
  • If you should come upon a bear that seems to think you’d make a great snack, prepare to fight. You should be as loud as possible and fight aggressively, using weapons if possible. Grab a stick or a rock, and try to hit the bear on the snout or in the eyes. If you think it’s likely you will encounter bears, you should also carry a can of capsaicin. It’s the compound that makes jalapeno peppers burn your eyes if you forget to wash your hands after making salsa. If you find yourself up close and personal with an aggressive bear, spray it in the eyes to temporarily disarm it.

Simple awareness and avoidance are the best weapons you have against any wild animals when you’re out in the woods. Stay safe and have a great time!

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