As summer gives way to fall, you and the family have decided to take a weekend trip into the mountains for some much-needed relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life. You book a room at a rustic lodge well up in the foothills. The location is, for the most part, isolated but still near enough to a small town that you won’t feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. The facility offers all the amenities, including a top-notch restaurant that provides room service, a pool and hot tub, and several miles of hiking trails into the surrounding forests.
You arrive at the resort in the early evening, and your spouse and kids are thrilled to see deer alongside the road during the drive through the forest. There seems to be plenty of wildlife in the area: an eagle overhead, an abundance of small birds, squirrels and even a roly-poly raccoon waddling across the road from the restaurant.
After unpacking the car and ushering the kids down near the creek for a chance to explore, it seems pretty clear that the relaxation you are looking for can be found right here. The forest is alive. There are rocks and fallen tree limbs throughout the woods. Deer tracks can be seen at the water’s edge and in some places, the tracks gather into clearly defined trails. The sound of running water rises up from the creek. Clouds drift by as the blanket of night is pulled across the sky. All is right with the world.
An Unexpected Errand
After a wonderful family dinner and another short walk down near the creek, you usher the kids off to bed in their adjoining room, deciding to relax for just a bit before calling it a night. Tomorrow, a guided hike will take you three miles into the woods for a picnic before the return trip to the resort.
Night has fallen and you are settled into the motel easy chair watching The Weather Channel when you hear your spouse rustling around in the suitcase. She pulls a bottle of wine out of the case, holds it up and suggests that you find the ice machine to make sure the wine can be perfectly chilled. You sigh, but softly. Knowing that you should be helpful and wanting to ensure your spouse enjoys every minute of this little getaway, you decide to head out in search of ice. You move to lace up your shoes. Your .40-caliber pistol is still on your hip as you locate the ice bucket and separate one of the plastic liners. Bucket in hand and gun on your hip, you venture out into the cool evening air. The design of the resort has every room open to an exterior balcony or first-floor walkway.
There are lights around the resort, but you are surprised at just how dark it has gotten in the short time you’ve been watching TV. You walk along the balcony, looking for some indication there would be an ice machine nearby. You choose to go down a flight of stairs and turn toward the lodge and restaurant, hoping you’ll find ice that direction. Another 50 yards down the walkway you see a tiny sign: ICE, with an arrow leading you through a breezeway. The location seems a bit dark, but you figure, “She wants ice. She will get ice.”
Black Bear Encounter
Down the breezeway you walk, and as you near where you think the ice machine should be, you hear noises. Rustling. It’s as if someone is roughly moving something. You round the final corner, taking about five steps, when you see something move in front of you about 40 or 50 feet away. It’s large. Black. Covered with fur. Hardly believing your eyes, you take three more steps and realize you are looking at the backside of what seems to you to be a rather large black bear busily rooting through something between you and the ice machine. Now about 30 feet away.
Without thinking, you drop your ice bucket. The noise startles the bruin, which quickly pivots and looks straight at you. You suddenly realize that while you are in what is basically an open-ended hallway with walls and doors on both sides, the closest exit is behind you. It is then that you hear another noise. This one made by a small cub that now appears as if by magic, out of nowhere.
As you take stock of the situation before making a decision, the larger bear stands on its hind legs, and you realize this animal is as tall as you. You start to take a step slowly backward when the bear drops back down to all fours and begins swaying its head from side to side, snorting and huffing. What now?
- Shout at the bear as you back up.
- Drop to the ground and play dead.
- Find something to throw at the bear.
- Draw your gun and prepare to fire.
Black Bear Behavior
What do you really know about bears? Are you well-versed in bear body language? Did you know that the bear standing on its hind legs is not an aggressive maneuver? That’s just the bear getting a better look at you and trying to catch your scent. But did you also know that the swaying head, huffing and snorting are indicators of aggression? Other common signs of aggression in a black bear include popping of the jaws, clacking of the teeth and blowing. A bear with its head low and ears laid back is also in a very bad mood.
Bears will stay with their cubs for two seasons and sows will be extremely aggressive if they believe a cub is in danger. Bears are also very fast, especially over short distances. Do you remember the Tueller drill? Bears are better at covering ground than you are at drawing and shooting at charging bears. And where would you aim to most quickly stop a charging bear?
With the knowledge above, you now understand you are in a dangerous situation: tight quarters with what appears to be a mother bear and a cub. The bear is already showing aggression.
But wait, there’s more.
Bears will often make a false charge in an effort to size you up. But turning to run may only spark the instinct to pursue. Standing still might put you in physical contact with the bear. Then what?
Evidence shows that fighting back against a black bear is typically a good thing. Wildlife biologists say only the most determined black bears will continue to attack if you fight back violently. You might sustain some injuries but would likely survive just by fighting off the bear with your hands and feet.
Shouting at the bear is a good strategy, and this self-defense incident is just like any other. If the aggressor runs away, let the aggressor run away. Don’t fire. Dropping to the ground and playing dead is often a good strategy when dealing with an attack by a grizzly bear. But who among us could remain still and play dead with claws or teeth penetrating your flesh?
If you feel you must consider taking a shot at this bear, remember where you are. This is a crowded resort and could be within city limits. It is most certainly covered by some sort of county ordinance covering the use of firearms. There are also state game laws to consider, but one would think that a game warden would have to actually prove you were hunting or acting as a poacher shooting the bear out of season in order to make a case.
Can you safely and legally take a shot? Would you fire if you did not know the legal ramifications but felt as though you were in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death?
What Really Happened?
The information presented here is based loosely, very loosely, on a case currently working its way through the courts. A man in bear country rounded a corner at a motel and came face to face with a bear. He believed the bear was acting aggressively and fired a single round from his .45-caliber pistol. The bear ran off and, as of this writing, is believed to have been hit, but has not been found. The man was, based on the location and some other factors, charged with recklessly discharging a firearm. More charges may be brought against him. There was no video of the incident.
Black bears typically avoid humans and can often be scared away easily by shouting and making noise. Sometimes throwing things can help scare away a bear, too. But a sow with a cub can be unpredictable. This is especially true if the bear feels trapped or cornered. With your gun in your holster and only maybe 30 feet between you and the bear, it would be a tough thing to get that gun into play and on target.
It is also true that you would likely not be forced to kill the bear. As always, you should keep shooting until the threat stops. But in many cases, the sound of the first shot will put a bear into full flight. Once again, don’t go shooting at a fleeing bear. There is no need; the danger has passed.
In this case, the best course of action would appear to be trying to scare the bear away with shouts and other options. You should do this with your gun out and at the ready, but with your finger off the trigger.
Self-defense against aggressive animals often moves the situation to an entirely different legal footing and framework. The basics are still the same. To wit: you must be facing real danger that you can articulate to the authorities. Then, of course, you are responsible for every shot you take. Hitting and killing the bear might bring an entirely new set of legal questions.
So, if your quiet weekend getaway is interrupted by a black bear, should you shoot?
About Kevin Michalowski
Executive Editor of Concealed Carry Magazine Kevin Michalowski is a USCCA and NRA Certified Trainer and is a graduate of the Force Science Institute Certification Course. He has participated in training as both an instructor and a student in multiple disciplines. Kevin is also a fully certified law enforcement officer working part time for a small agency in rural Wisconsin.