Species: North American Black Bear
Trip: Middle Fork Salmon, Rogue River
Habitat: Forests of North America
Likelihood of encountering this species: Rare to very likely, depending on time of year.
“Look! It’s a bear! It’s a bear!” the exclamation sounds out from the lead boat and we all look for pointing fingers and that familiar black silhouette on the hills. Seeing a black bear in the wild is an exhilarating experience, and it never gets old. Sure enough, the bear is there, lumbering on the hillside not far from the river’s bank.
We all go silent and watch. Can the bear hear us? Can it see us? Surely it knows we’re here, it’s so close we can see the shape of its limbs and frame under its shaggy fur. Black bears are nearsighted, but can see details like we do close up. Their hearing is a bit better than ours.
But the bear is wrapped up in another sensory experience; smell. It is estimated that black bears have seven times better smell than a dog’s. Scientists can compare the smelling ability of mammals by measuring the nasal mucus membrane - the more surface area on this membrane to receive ‘smells’ the better the sense of smell.
Imagine being able to smell someone twelve hours after they left a room. How about being able to smell dinner from a mile away? Having this good of smell could become distracting and overwhelming, but bears put it to use finding food.
Black Bears are mostly scavengers. They love eating berries and nuts. They walk fifteen miles of a river to find one dead salmon on the waters’ edge but they won’t hunt if they can help it. They’re good at remembering locations too. It’s much easier to spend all day in a favorite blackberry bush than it is to chase after small animals or fish.
The Black Bear’s strong sense of smell, intelligence, and inherent laziness has gotten the species into trouble. They are quick to learn that humans leave food wherever they go. Maybe it’s a candy wrapper dropped on the trail or half a soda left on a boat. If they find it, they will remember it and soon they associate humans with food. Relocating the bear usually does not work due to their location based memory — they will find their way home and continue to scavenge in populated areas.
But, bears naturally don’t care for people. If their fear of humans outweighs their desire and association for food they will avoid us. That is why as soon as our bear on the river bank catches wind of us on the river he bolts up into the forest to safety.
Our relationship with wild bears is constantly changing and improving. Historically we have gone from killing bears on site to feeding them from our car windows for entertainment in our national parks. Now through research and education, we know each other better. We know that if we watch at a distance, keep our campsites clean and our food secure, they will leave us alone.
Smelling and finding food is not the only thing black bears are good at. For example, did you know that during hibernation black bears can recycle all their waste? I encourage you to read up on bear biology at the links below, or join us on the river to learn and see for yourself!