Black bears are as dangerous as a grizzly

By G. Sam Piatt - Contributing Columnist

It’s been 10 years since the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources allowed the first black bear hunt in Kentucky in modern times. A bear could be taken in only three southeastern counties.

An annual season has been permitted since. If you’re thinking of going for a bear this fall go online at for season dates, harvest quota numbers and hunting zone changes.

The bag limit is one bear per person, per license year, regardless of season.

Black bears aren’t portrayed as maulers and killers in Kentucky and southern Ohio, which also has a growing population of blacks, nor even in the Smoky Mountains where they are most plentiful. We think of them as Gentle Ben-type creatures, or as scavengers who raid a few garbage cans and are ready to flea at first glimpse of a human.

Shawn E. Bear, the new-look mascot of Shawnee State University, is a friendly cuss, and underneath that costume no doubt is a gentle creature. Yogi Bear gets laughs at his antics with picnic baskets in Jellystone National Park, and Smoky the forest service mascot is out only to save the forest.

I fell under this way of thinking at an open garbage dump just outside a camp I was staying at in far northern Ontario. I told the story here earlier this year of how I left the vehicle with a camera to try to get close enough to several big feeding blacks for a photograph, never realizing that I chanced being ripped limb from limb or becoming a food source myself.

“In the fall and winter months, bears have only one thing on their minds and that’s putting on weight for the winter denning season,” Steven Dobey, bear program coordinator for Kentucky fish and wildlife, said in an interview with Kentucky Afield magazine writer Harley Lynch. “They’ll concentrate their activity almost exclusively around food sources.”

And that potential food source might be the hunter.


Mike Cramond, a former newspaper reporter turned book author, in his 1986 book, “Of Bears and Man,” investigated and reported on killings and maulings by both grizzlies and blacks.

He said, in one horrible 1979 encounter with a black bear by Karen Austrom, a student naturalist in Mount Robson Park in the Rockies, that “black bears cause almost as many incidents as grizzly bears, yet people don’t realize that they are very dangerous.”

A two-year-old black bear that weighed just 150 pounds tried to eat Karen Austrom alive.

A two-year-old black that’s just been driven out by its mother to seek and establish its own territory is the worst of the blacks, Cramond said, with its uncertainty causing it to be aggressive.

A grizzly bear will usually go for a human victim’s head or neck, killing the person before dragging him or her off to begin eating.

In Austrom’s case, the black brought her down on a trail by clamping down on her thigh with its teeth and throwing her to the ground. Then it grabbed her by the right elbow and began eating her arm.

She lay still, on her stomach, playing dead, thinking the bear might cover her with dirt and leaves and leave, coming back at another time to finish its meal.

“Unfortunately,” Cramond said, “that applies more to grizzly bears. Black bears seem to start eating immediately.”

The bear ripped off her forearm and ate it, then dragged her off a short distance into the bushes, where she lay in a fetal position.

“Later he started to bite at my lower back – as if he was sampling me – and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t let him do that!’ I extended what was left of my arm toward him to eat, and he bit at it. Then he took a couple of bites at my head,” Austrom told Cramond.

She lived to tell her story because some other people came along the trail and were able to drive the bear off. A fireman on vacation carried her in a fireman’s hold for two miles to where an ambulance transported her to a hospital.

“I remained conscious all the way to the hospital,” she told Cramond.

The book has several other accounts of people being attacked by black bears.


For 150 years, black bears were absent from Kentucky as logging and other industrial interests took away their habitat. They have gradually made their way back from neighboring Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee as oak and hickory forests matured once again.

Dobey said the bear population “has shown phenomenal growth from only a decade ago. We’ve been monitoring this population and have been involved in research with the University of Kentucky for almost 10 years. Based on our research efforts, it’s clear that Kentucky’s bear population can support a sustainable harvest.”

State regulations include:

—Hunters may not take female bears with cubs or bears weighing less than 75 pounds.

—Baiting is prohibited, including garbage used as bait. For example, hunters may not shoot a bear feeding at a garbage can or dumpster.

Hunter orange clothing is required for all bear hunters regardless of what hunting equipment they use, as the season coincides with late muzzleloader deer season.

By G. Sam Piatt

Contributing Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.