Even though being in close proximity to a running black bear is certainly unnerving, not every bear encounter is a dangerous one. In a video taken at Yellowstone National Park on Sunday, a bear is seen running down a highway in the park, surrounded by visitors. But what has been interpreted as a "bear chase" or "bear attack" is neither, according to Dr. Lynn Rogers, the Wildlife Research Institute's principal biologist, who has been studying North American bears for over 40 years. "There is a lot of misinterpretation when it comes to bear encounters," says Rogers. "But I have never witnessed a problem with people around a black bear and her cubs. No one I know has ever been attacked in that situation."
In fact, black bear mothers are unlikely to attack people in defense of cubs. That is a grizzly bear trait. Seventy percent of the killings by grizzly bears are by mothers defending cubs, but there is no record of a black bear killing anyone in defense of cubs, according to the WRI website.
The video, which shows a mother bear crossing a bridge, then running down the highway towards a group of visitors, has been described as a mother bear charging to protect her cubs. While it is never 100 percent safe to be in close proximity to wild animals, it is best to remain calm and interpret the situation. "Watching this video, I see a mother bear who is coming along just to cross the bridge and people happen to be there," says Rogers. "She is probably nervous because the amount of people and just wants to stay safe with her cubs—but never once does is she acting towards the people. No aggression, no threat, no chasing—she just wants to get out of the confusion."
Rogers explains that most people interpret these close encounters as threats because there is a belief that bears in the wild that lose their fear of people are more dangerous, but this isn't necessarily the case. "Bears are more likely to attack on the basis of defensive fear. So the less they fear us and the less they feel threatened by human presence, the less they are likely to attack."
The North American Bear Center advises that if you see a black bear, speak calmly and back away slowly. This identifies you as a person, shows that you are non-threatening, and gives the bear space.