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Tips for knowing if a bear has been nearby (and stories about our recent bear visitor)

Black bear tracks on deck, Aug. 11, 2010
Black bear tracks on deck, Aug. 11, 2010
Photo by Kathy L. Harris

A black bear has been visiting us the past few nights, as is typical this time of year. We haven’t seen the bear, but he (or she) has left plenty of calling cards.

First, the bear opened our car one night this week, leaving mud and bear prints everywhere on the front passenger seat, floor and door, but no scratch damage or torn fabric, as we have experienced in the past. (Read about our bear break-in last summer here.)

By the way, we’ve lived in bear country for nine years now, and the revelation that a bear has been in your car in the past few hours never gets any less unsettling. Plus, bears almost always leave behind a very wild animal scent that lasts in the car for at least six to eight hours.

The next day, we found bear scat in our backyard, which is really just the forest. My 3-year-old is really into identifying animal poop.

Black bear scat is tubular when firm and typically about 1.5 inches in diameter. The scat will likely contain remains of grass, berries and leaves, along with feathers, fish scales and the fine hair of mice and chipmunks. The scat we found was covered in what appeared to be squirrel or mice hair.

This morning, we woke to very clear (from mud) bear tracks all over our back deck. We could tell exactly his or her path and that he seemed to take a peek in all of our windows before heading on his way. I hope he’s done with snooping around for now.

Identifying a bear track

Interestingly, bears move both legs on one side of the body at a time, and you can see that in the tracks we found this morning. A bear print looks a lot like a human print, although the bear paw print is much wider and shorter than ours. Bears have five toes on all feet, but the fifth toe, along with the heel pad of the front feet, don’t always register in a track.

Other signs that would indicate a bear has visited:

  • Wide double ruts in tall grass
  • Broken twigs along a trail
  • Pieces of bear fur on low tree branches or trunks
  • Up-ended rocks and old logs that have been torn apart as the bear searched for insects
  • Scooped-out pieces of the forest floor where a bear has looked for and found plant roots and small animal burrows
  • Deep claw-mark scratches on tree trunks (bears will pull off strips of bark from pine, spruce and fir trees)

Our family has taken all precautions for not attracting bears and mountain lions to our home: We leave outdoor lights on all night long, we don’t leave food of any kind outside or in our cars, and our barbecue grill is clean. But sometimes, a curious bear, I guess, just wants to check to make sure.

Sources: A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie, Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking by Tom Brown, Jr. with Brandt Morgan, and the San Diego Natural History Museum Field Guide

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  • Herman 4 years ago

    Thanks for the info.

  • Carol 4 years ago

    Good information! I'm glad you are teaching Mac how to identify animals from their poop. When people spend time in the mountains they should know what animals are around them and how to act if confronted.

  • Ryan 4 years ago

    It's as if someone stepped outside and got fancy with the EXTERIOR decorating on our deck: Bear Tracks! The new design at BED, BATH AND BEYOND this Fall!

  • Sushil 4 years ago

    Ryan -- you may have the next Big Thing in home decor! :-)

  • sue 4 years ago

    Just keep talking if you never want to see me in Co. again!!!!!

  • Profile picture of ll
    ll 4 years ago

    Enjoyed this article

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