A partnership of the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service.

I’ve Always Wondered…

What should I do if I see a bear?
Consider yourself lucky, and treat it with respect. Read the Bear Encounters page on this site for more details.

What’s the difference between a “black” bear and a “brown” bear?
American black bears (Ursus Americanus) are not necessarily black. They are smaller and less aggressive than their larger cousin the brown bear (Ursus Arctos Horribilus, or grizzly), which are not necessarily brown. In the US, brown bears are found in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. For more info about brown bears check out the links in the sidebar on this page.

Is that a black bear on the California flag?
Nope. The bear on the California flag is a grizzly, now extinct in the state. The last known California grizzly was killed near Sequoia National Park in 1922.

Are black bears endangered?
No. The American black bear population in the Sierra is healthy and growing.

What do “habituated” and “food conditioned” mean?
Where populated areas overlap with bear habitat, the presence of people can become a routine aspect of the bears’ environment. A “habituated” bear is one that one that has gotten used to being around people and does not respond to the presence of humans—they essentially ignore people. These bears are more likely to learn that human structures, automobiles, campsites, and populated areas are possible sources of food, thereby becoming “food conditioned.” Getting into improperly stored human “food” (trash, etc) even just once can start a bear down this path.

What does it mean to “aversively condition” a bear?
The terms “aversive conditioning” and “hazing” each refer to specific techniques wildlife biologists use in their efforts to retrain habituated bears, but the general principle is the same. The goal is to recondition habituated bears to avoid populated areas and eat natural foods, thereby “breaking the cycle” that draws black bears into populated areas.

Why do resource managers sometimes have to kill bears?
A bear that has grown accustomed to human food may become aggressive toward people. If aversive conditioning techniques don’t work to break this cycle, and a bear continues to demonstrate aggressive behavior, resource managers are left no choice but to euthanize the bear. This cycle invariably begins with the unfortunate bear getting food from a careless or unknowing person.

Why don’t resource managers just relocate “problem” bears?
In short, relocating bears rarely works. Over 95% of bears removed from their home range will find their way back, become a problem somewhere else, or die from challenges created by their relocation.

Where can I see a bear?
Most visitors who see bears in the Sierra Nevada are simply lucky, but you can improve your luck by knowing where to look. In spring, bears often dig for roots and grasses in meadows and rip apart logs foraging for insects. When berries are available in summer, bears dine at manzanita and various other berry bushes. By fall, they can be found high in oak trees gorging themselves on acorns. Even if you don’t see a bear during your visit, you can find signs of bears everywhere – overturned rocks and stumps, torn-up rotten trees, scat, scratch marks and bits of fur on trees, and tracks in the snow or mud.

How many bears are killed by cars each year?
In Yosemite as an example, an average of 15 bears are struck by vehicles each year. Many run off the road and their fate is unknown. In wild areas speed limits are set to protect wildlife, not just people.

Should I carry bear spray?
Bear spray is commonly recommended in grizzly country, but most visitors don’t carry it in the Sierra - its possession in national parks is prohibited. Check out the Bear Encounters page on this site for more info on what to do if you see a bear.

Is it legal to hunt bears?
Yes, though only within specific limits during a specified hunting season, and not in national parks. For more information check with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

black bear

A black bear

Food Storage:

Where are food canisters required in the backcountry?
Each park or forest decides its own policies for where canisters are required or encouraged. Use the Sierra Food Storage Map and Wilderness Areas section on this site to determine whether a canister is required in a specific area. Remember – regardless of the area, a canister is always the easiest and most effective way to protect bears from getting your food.

If canisters are not required, should I carry one?
If a canister is not required, it’s up to you to decide. Though again, a canister is always the easiest way to protect bears from getting your food. See the side bar on this page for a few reasons to use a canister whenever you’re in bear country.

Which specific food canisters are allowed?
Each park and forest in the Sierra makes its own decision on which specific canisters are “allowed” for use in required canister areas. Check out the Allowed Bear Canisters page on this site for more info.

Can I protect my food by hanging it from a tree?
While the “counterbalance” method of hanging food from a tree limb is still permitted in some areas, most resource managers agree this method is only a delay tactic - a bear will eventually get your hung food if you don’t scare it away first. Finding an appropriate tree and correctly hanging your food is extremely difficult, and a conditioned bear is likely to get down even the “perfect” hang. Check out the sidebar on this page for a few more reasons to use a canister.

Can a bear smell canned food? How about unopened sodas or freeze-dried meals?
Yes, yes, and yes. A bear’s sense of smell is vastly more sensitive than a human’s – any food or beverage, no matter how it is packaged, could attract a bear.

Will I get in trouble if a bear breaks into my car?
Maybe. If a ranger determines that you broke the law by leaving food improperly stored in your car, you may receive a citation and your car may be towed.

Are bears still a problem in areas where canisters are not required and there are no lockers?
Perhaps. Food storage regulations and facilities are determined by past human/bear interactions and available resources. Many areas in bear habitat may not have food storage information posted or bear lockers provided. It’s up to you to be prepared and store your food correctly everywhere in bear habitat. Follow the Bear Essentials listed on this site and you’ll stack the odds in your (and the bear’s) favor.

For bear behavior and biology questions, check out our Bear Biology section.