Early Spring Means Early Signs of Bear

March 22, 2010

Contact:  Chris Morgan, Co-Director, Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP), chrismorgan@insightwildlife.com, (360) 303-4521
Contact:  Dennis Ryan, Field Coordinator – Okanogan County, GBOP, dennisryan@bearinfo.org, (206) 713-2074
Note:  Photos available (grizzly bear, black bear, and/or “non-natural bear food” images)

Early spring means early signs of bear

Here’s how to get “bear smart”

This year, Washington state residents are seeing signs of an early spring: blooming crocuses and daffodils, flocks of robins heading north, and longer and sunnier days.  Residents are also seeing earlier signs of bears as some are already emerging from hibernation due to the warmer temperatures.

Both black bears and grizzly bears are waking up from their long winter slumber and will be heading out of their dens in search of food.  To keep bears wild and families safe, there are a few things people should know.

First, Washington is home to two species of bear: the grizzly bear and the black bear.  While black bears are common, grizzly bears are exceptionally rare.  Around 25,000 black bears can be found throughout Washington’s wooded areas, including rainforests, dry eastern-slope woodlands, neighborhood greenbelts, and pretty much anywhere they can find forested cover.  Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are found only in two areas in Washington: the North Cascades and the Selkirk Ecosystems.  In the North Cascades, it is thought that fewer than 20 grizzly bears remain.

“A bear’s diet is made up of mostly wild plants and seeds.  However, bears can start looking for food in all the wrong places, including porches, sheds, garages, garbage cans, barbecues, kennels, and bird feeders,” said Chris Morgan, bear ecologist and Co-Director of the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP).  “It really is down to humans to help reduce encounters by being good neighbors.”

Morgan continues, “Bears have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s much better than that of a dog, and they have a great memory when it comes to food.”  Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says we can safely co-exist with these animals and offers some tips:

  • eliminate potential sources of easy food
  • keep pet food indoors
  • only feed bird seed in winter (when bears are less active)
  • keep garbage indoors until just before the pick-up service arrives
  • clean barbeque grills after they are used

Even putting biodiesel in bear-safe containers is a wise call, says Beausoleil.

“Remember: A fed bear is a dead bear,” says Chris Morgan.  “Bears that become food-conditioned become nuisances.  We can keep bears wild and avoid encounters by taking a few simple steps.  And, if you should encounter a bear, there are some important things to do to keep safe.”  See the attached recommendations (“Being Bear Smart in Bear Country”) on staying safe while living, working, and recreating in bear country.  You can also visit GBOP’s website at www.bearinfo.org.

The Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP) is a non-advocacy, science-based organization funded from multiple sources, including state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations.  GBOP provides a community-based approach that involves homeowners, businesses, and local officials.  Experience has shown that when community members understand bear behavior and ecology, they are willing to take steps to become better neighbors to wildlife and reduce encounters.

Being Bear Smart in Bear Country

At your home or ranch

  • Do not leave human food outside where bears can find it.
  • Store garbage indoors or in bear-resistant garbage cans and do not put garbage out until shortly before the pick-up service arrives.
  • Keep barbecue grills clean and free from grease.  Store them inside, if possible.
  • Make sure that bird feeders, birdseed, suet, and hummingbird mixes are not accessible to a bear.
  • Keep pets inside at night, if possible.
  • Remember: If bears have gotten into your garbage or livestock feed, remove the attractant immediately.  Repeated use of a site by bears is much harder to stop than a single instance.

At your campsite

Camp setup

  • First: Be aware of your surroundings.  Look at them from a bear’s perspective.  Investigate your site before setting up camp, and then establish a clean camp that is free from odors.
  • Avoid camping next to trails or streams as bears and other wildlife use these as travel routes.
  • Avoid camping near natural bear food sources such as berries.
  • The 100-yard rule: When not camping in a National Park or other areas with designated camping sites, locate your cook area and food cache at least 100 yards downwind from your tent.

Food storage

  • Never leave food unattended in your campsite unless it is properly stored.
  • Do not bring food or odorous non-food items into your tent.  This includes chocolate, candy, wrappers, toothpaste, perfume, deodorant, feminine hygiene products, insect repellent, and lip balm.
  • Avoid canned foods with strong odors such as tuna.
  • Place food in bear-resistant storage containers (available at some campgrounds) or store it in your vehicle.
  • Where this is not possible, cache your food by placing it inside several layers of sealed plastic bags (to reduce odor) and a stuff sack (waterproof “dry bags” work well).  Then hang it as described below.
  • Remember to hang pots, utensils, cosmetics, used feminine hygiene products, toiletries, and any other odorous items with your food and garbage.


  • Never cook or eat in your tent.  Food smells may attract bears and other wildlife.
  • Wash all dishes and cans immediately after eating.  Remember the 100-yard rule: When not camping in a National Park or other areas with designated camping sites, wash the dishes and dump the dishwater at least 100 yards from your campsite.
  • If possible, remove the clothing you wore while cooking before going to sleep.  Store these clothes in your vehicle or with your food and garbage (see above).

Garbage disposal/storage

  • Never leave garbage unattended, unless it is properly stored.
  • Do not bury your garbage.  Animals will easily dig it up.
  • Garbage should be deposited in bear-resistant garbage cans or stored in your vehicle until it can be dumped.
  • Remember: “Pack it in, pack it out.”  This includes ALL garbage (including biodegradable items such as fruit peels).

Hiking and horse packing

  • Think ahead and be prepared.  It is possible to avoid a bear confrontation by being knowledgeable and alert.
  • Travel in a group and during daylight hours.
  • Talk or sing songs as you walk, especially in dense brush where visibility is limited, near running water, or when the wind is in your face.  Bears may feel threatened if surprised.  Your voice will help a bear to identify you as human.  If a bear hears you coming, it will usually avoid you.
  • Keep dogs on a leash and under control.  Dogs may fight with bears and lead them back to you.
  • Never approach or feed a bear or any other wildlife.
  • Consider carrying pepper spray as a bear deterrent.  It may help in an encounter with a potentially aggressive bear.

Hunting and fishing

  • Follow the guidelines for campers, hikers, and horse packers.  Be alert at all times.
  • If you kill a game animal, immediately field dress the animal and move the carcass at least 100 yards from the gut pile.
  • If you must leave the carcass, hang it (in pieces if necessary) at least 15 feet from the ground.  Leave the carcass where you can see it from a distance.  When you return to the carcass, observe it with binoculars from a distance and make noise as you approach.
  • If a bear has claimed the carcass, leave the area immediately and report the incident to the proper authorities.
  • Don’t leave fish entrails on shorelines of lakes and streams.  Sink entrails deep in water.

Encountering a bear

Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare.  To help avoid one, know what to do if you encounter a bear.  Here are tips on how to react if you see one:

  • Give the bear a way to escape.
  • Steer clear of bear cubs.
  • Stay calm and do not run or make sudden movements.
  • Back away slowly as you face the bear.
  • Consider talking to it in a firm tone of voice to let it know you are a human.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with the bear.
  • If you are attacked, fight back using rocks, sticks, and hands to fend off the bear and shout/make noise.