Run-ins with black bears are headline-makers in any North American summer, but 2017 has seen more serious ones than usual.

Most notably, two separate incidents saw people killed by black bears in Alaska within the same week: a 16-year-old on a trail run in Chugach State Park near the city of Anchorage on June 18, and then the next day a geologist north of Delta Junction in the state's vast bush-country interior.

Those tragedies attracted the most attention, but there have been other dicey encounters too – including just a few days ago in British Columbia, when an aggressive black bear broke into a home and was driven out with clanging pots, a chair and ultimately a punch in the nose.

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Well, hello there... Image: Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

To combat the sensationalism right off the bat, it's important to say that this summer's fast-and-furious bear news does not by any means imply some shift in bear behaviour: these lumbering omnivores – which, despite their name, are sometimes cinnamon-hued, blonde, chocolate-brown, even white – haven't ramped up their aggressiveness. Ursus americanus is the most numerous bear species in the world, and summertime sees millions of campers, hikers, fieldworkers and other folks exploring the wilds of the United States and Canada, so encounters are more common than ever.

It's a fine line with an animal such as the black bear: understanding the danger it can legitimately pose, but doing so in the proper context. Plenty big and powerful as they are, black bears aren't as hefty as grizzlies or polar bears (though, to put things in perspective, American black bears are the third-largest of the world's ursids: a big boar may weigh more than 800 pounds). They don't have the big-cat aura of a puma or the reptilian intimidation of an alligator. It's by no means true of everybody living and recreating in black-bear country, but there's no question some people underestimate the creature.

Watch this semi-surreal video of two male black bears duking it out in suburban New Jersey, and you'll gain some respect for the smallest North American bear's heft and strength.

The accommodating black bear

Most of the time, a black bear has no interest in engaging with people; the bears that do, more often than not, are those habituated to human garbage or handouts.

Chris Morgan, a bear expert and wildlife filmmaker, notes the animals usually go out of their way to avoid people in the backcountry – even those people who fail to make the proper amount of noise, recognise and avoid recent bear sign, and otherwise practice proper safety measures. "The bears don't get a thank-you for that," Morgan notes, even as we hype much rarer instances of bear attacks. "Those [are the incidents that] make headline news," he says, "because it's human nature."

And certainly the attacks that really make headline news are fatal ones such as the two Alaska incidents from this summer. The sobering message is that, yes, black bears very occasionally kill people, and there's no question these are tragic events with heartbreaking consequences.

The encouraging news, however (besides how uncommon such attacks are) is that in many, many cases the odds of discouraging or thwarting a black-bear attack are very good if the right approach is taken.

When black bears attack

In 2011, Stephen Herrero (who wrote the seminal Bear Attacks: Their Causes & Avoidance) and a number of Canadian and American colleagues assessed all known fatal black-bear attacks in Canada and the US between 1900 and 2009: 63 of them. What they discovered has helped change the way we look at black bears as potential threats to life and limb – and, above all, underscored how exceedingly unusual deadly run-ins with the species are.

After all, there may be as many as 900,000 or so American black bears in the wild, and not just in remote, sparsely inhabited places: black bears are doing quite well in such densely populated states as New Jersey and Massachusetts. Yet on average only two people a year are killed by the animals.

Comparatively few of the fatal attacks were carried out by female black bears defending their cubs – in marked contrast to attacks by grizzlies, most of which are defensive ones by mother sows. This seems to reflect the generally less aggressive disposition of the black bear. (That's also seemingly supported by the lack of known fatal black-bear attacks around animal carcasses: stumbling upon a grizzly feeding on or guarding a dead animal is one of the least promising situations you can find yourself in, but black bears seem to be less assertively proprietary over carrion.)

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Mother black bears with cubs are rarely responsible for fatal attacks on people. Image: Pixabay

Close to 90% of fatal black-bear attacks seemed to have been predatory events: in other words, instances where a bear (all of these involved single animals) likely attacked a person with the intent to eat them. A terrifying prospect, to be sure, and horrendous for the victims involved and their loved ones – but, again, an extremely uncommon occurrence.

Furthermore, Herrero's research found that 92% of these fatal predatory attacks were made by male bears.

The notion of any animal actually hunting a human being for food understandably freaks people out. Being as objective as possible, though, it's not really surprising that a black bear – large, omnivorous and tasked from spring through fall with fattening up for winter sleep – would, every once in awhile, size a person up as potential prey. "It's an opportunity, that's how the bear sees it," Morgan says. "It's just being opportunistic, and that's part of why black bears have been so successful."

What this doesn't suggest is that every black bear has that outlook, or that the instinct makes a particular animal freakishly bloodthirsty. As we'll see, the behaviour of most potentially predatory black bears towards people hints at an animal cautiously scoping out a situation, not zeroing in for the kill the moment of an encounter. That leaves lots of room for trying to prevent an attack – but we'll get to that.

Etiquette in black-bear country

Making the soundest decisions in the event of an encounter requires some simple interpretations of a bear's actions and ... bearing (sigh, sorry). Talking about the smart response to a possibly predatory animal means winnowing down basic safety protocol, which starts before you even hit the trail or the campground.

We'll talk more about bear pepper spray later, but suffice it to say anybody travelling around bear country – even in the absence of grizzlies – should strongly consider carrying it. Just because you've never had to use it, Morgan notes, doesn't mean you should become blasé and stop bringing it along.

People hiking alone or in pairs are somewhat more vulnerable to bear attacks than groups of three or more, Herrero and his colleagues found. (That's also true of grizzly attacks.)

Morgan stresses the value of staying aware on the trail. Learn how to recognise bear sign out in the field: scat, tracks or a torn-open log (the work of an ant-hungry bruin). Keying into such evidence can actually heighten your overall outdoors experience. "That's partly what brings the forest alive, when you know what you're looking at," Morgan notes.

Fresh evidence of bear activity should have you extra-cautious and observant: make plenty of noise (loud talking, shouting, hand-clapping) to alert bears of your presence, and if bear sign is very heavy and recent, consider leaving the area altogether. (Such judgment calls depend heavily on your experience, of course.)

Obviously you can run into a bear anywhere, but depending on the season, certain areas see heavier bear activity because of – surprise, surprise! – food. This time of year, for instance, is high summer in North America, and black bears in many places are scarfing berries (as are grizzlies). That means a hiker (or berry-picker, obviously) passing through fruiting fields should be sure to make noise and stay vigilant.

More often than not, a black bear will sense you coming and slip away unseen. In certain national parks (and other areas where bears have become somewhat habituated to human presence), though, the animals may be more likely to tolerate people on the scene, which then demands the proper etiquette on your part to keep the encounter a safe and low-stress one.

Encountering a black bear

So what if you come around the bend and see a black bear? Whether it's a mother with cubs or a lone ranger, your initial course of action should be the same. If the bear hasn't seen you, back away slowly and head in the other direction, or take a wide detour if possible.

But if you've been clocked, speak in a normal voice, and either hold your ground or back away while still facing the animal. Basically, you want to identify yourself as a human being, which your average black bear has no interest in tangling with. Morgan underscores the value of making yourself heard: "I talk to the bear and let it make the first move, which is generally barrelling away in the other direction at top speed."

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The defensive black bear

If the bear doesn’t exit the scene, you need to really key into its behaviour. If you've surprised it, especially at closer quarters, it may put on a defensive display to let you know you're too close, or otherwise making it uncomfortable. Bears that feel threatened by your presence tend to be noisy: clacking their teeth, huffing, growling and grunting.

Such bears may also swat the ground, or (most unnervingly) conduct a bluff charge: rushing you, then coming to a stop or swerving around before actually making contact. In the event of a charge, you should stay put rather than running away (which could trigger the bear's chase instinct).

John Hechtel of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game told Alaska Dispatch News in June, "The longer you stand there, even if it's running toward you, the greater chance the bear will stop short or go around." He does, however, acknowledge the fight-against-your-instinct grit that's required here. "It's a hard thing for people to do."

If it appears an oncoming black bear is going to physically contact you (very rare in a defensive situation), now's a good time to use that bear spray you're hopefully toting. Technically, playing dead – the proper response to a surprised or defensive grizzly – may placate a black bear protecting its cubs, or one that's frightened for its own life, by convincing it that you're no longer a threat. But because an actual physical assault by that sort of black bear is so unusual, many authorities (from the National Park Service to BC Parks) don't recommend this strategy given the statistics.

If you do play dead, though, and a bear's attack persists, you should shift gears and resist. "If that bear continues to attack you after 30 seconds or a minute, even if you're not moving at all and you're being completely silent, that's when you start to fight back," Morgan says. 

The predatory black bear

What if the bear you encounter isn't demonstrating typical defensive behaviour in the first place? In an area with many habituated bears, the animal may well essentially ignore you, in which case you should follow that general approach of making your presence known and slowly leaving the vicinity – never, of course, approaching the bear.

The Herrero study suggested that the statistically most dangerous black bear – the predatory animal, usually a male – can often be recognised early on in an encounter. Its response to your presence is usually quite different from a surprised or frightened bear. A predatory individual is typically silent, with none of the huffing, puffing, tooth-clacking exhibitionism of an agitated animal. Predatory bears may approach you in an inquisitive manner, stopping often and regarding you with apparent curiosity as you're backing (or sidling) away.

These Connecticut bears, whatever their motives might be, are definitely evidencing some too-close-for-comfort curiosity:

(In the British Columbia incident we alluded to at the start, the black bear in question – an adult male – was hitting the hallmarks of a predatory animal, given it had followed people inside their home and later chased a man outside.)

That unsettling inquisitiveness seems to reflect a bear scoping out a potential prey item. And scoping out mostly means gauging if you're an easy meal. Whether it's an on-and-off hunter like a black bear or a full-timer like a tiger, a predator isn't exercising savage swagger when going after prey: because it's vulnerable in a life-and-death scuffle to a career-ending injury, the hunter wants to get the job done with an absolute minimum of risk. Catching and killing large animals – and human beings, all things considered, are large animals – is a tough business, hence the preference of so many meat-eaters to subsist on fare much, much smaller than we are.

All that's to say that a person putting on a show of force is, more often than not, the sort of creature a black bear doesn't want to mess around with. Too risky and too much work – a newborn fawn or caribou calf is so much easier.

"When an animal's coming at you in a predatory way, you don't want to be an easy meal," Morgan points out. Your response to a quiet black bear that's following you should be shouting, waving your arms and throwing rocks or branches.

And if the bear's getting way too close, pull that pepper spray from its holster (if you haven't already) and unleash a nasty cloud of blinding, choking capsaicin: usually all it takes to convince it that you (and maybe any other human it runs across down the road) are not at all worth the trouble.

A major finding of the 2011 analysis on fatal black-bear attacks? In not one of the instances researchers examined where a bear killed a person was pepper spray employed in attempted defence – either by the victim or onlookers. Multiple studies have suggested bear spray is a highly effective bear deterrent and many consider it superior overall in that regard to a firearm (which can be misfired or provoke a wounded bear to heightened aggression). It's not foolproof – the geologist killed this summer in Alaska and her companion apparently tried bear spray to no avail during that attack – but when properly used it can be very successful.

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You needn't be a linebacker-sized person to fight off a black bear. In his Bear Attacks book, Herrero recounts the case of a ten-year-old girl in rural British Columbia who foiled a predatory black bear that had followed her to a cabin by tossing boiling water into its face.

Yelling at or pelting a black bear – the proper course of action if you think it's eyeing you as food – are, mind you, the sort of aggressive routines that can make a non-predatory black bear feel threatened. This highlights the importance of learning the basic differences between these two encounters and acting accordingly.

By the way, if you awaken while camping to a black bear biting you – as one teenager in Colorado did this July – you should assume the bear's predatory. (A camp counsellor and instructor in wilderness survival, the Colorado teen took the proper course of action by fighting back; he and fellow campers managed to drive the bear away, and he ended up with only minor injuries.) As a rule, experts generally consider night-time attacks on sleeping campers by both black and grizzly bears to be predatory in nature.

Some closing thoughts

Morgan stresses two points when in comes to meet-ups with bears. First, a bear isn't a robot: it's an intelligent individual creature with its own disposition, which means it's inherently unpredictable.

That requires you to pay attention to what a particular bear is doing, rather than making a generalised assumption ("That bear's going to try to kill me and I should go into full battle mode right now," for example, or "That bear's harmless and I can stroll right on by it") and acting on that. "I try to remember that every bear's different," Morgan says. "Every bear has different motives, every bear has a different personality."

And keep in mind that the bear – whether a scared subadult, a worried mom or a hungry full-grown male – is assessing you as you assess it, he adds. "Making your body language really clear is essential. They'll pick up on those subtleties – they're really smart."

Bears and human beings have been running into each other in the forest (and out on the tundra) for many millennia – there's an ancient relationship renewed every time we meet. But whatever the circumstances of those meetings, it's important to keep in mind the overall patience and tolerance the bear normally grants us (even when we're freaking out or, worse yet, edging too close for a selfie).

Carrying pepper spray, learning how to recognise bear sign, giving bears their space and responding appropriately to their behaviour: all things considered, these are mighty low-hassle measures we can take to avoid most bad bear confrontations.

"It's about mutual respect," Morgan says. "We can get there, and in a pragmatic way: all it takes is people adjusting their behaviour in really simple ways, and we can all learn to live with wild animals like bears."

Correction, Thursday, August 31: This article previously stated that Anchorage is the state capital of Alaska. The capital is, in fact, Juneau.

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