Hungry Bears are on the Move

It is spring and Northwest  black bears are once again on the move. Hungry bears are emerging from their dens looking for ready sources of food to replace the calories lost during a winter of hibernation when bears can lose up to 1/2 their body weight.

Bear cubs are born in the winter during the mother’s hibernation. She frequently rouses to feed and care for them. When she first ventures out with new cubs in tow, she is particularly anxious to find enough food for the family group. Recreationalistsand those living near bear country should keep in mind that bear mothers can be extremely protective.

Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) said field staff have already received reports of black bear activity in North Bend, Issaquah, and Chelan County.

“Black bears usually emerge from their dens in mid-to-late April, but warm weather can cause them to stir earlier”, Beausoleil said.

Lorna Smith, Executive Director of Western Wildlife Outreach, advises that anyone encountering a sow, or female bear and her cubs should keep a safe distance.

“If a close encounter occurs, stand tall, make noise, and back away slowly. Bear spray such as that produced by Counter Assault and several other brand names, contains capsaicin in a concentration formulated to be effective against any large carnivore and is an important tool to keep close at hand when in bear country. Carry it where you can reach it easily, like in a belt holster, and be prepared to use it when a bear charges or approaches too closely. However, black bear attacks on humans in Washington State are very, very rare. “

When black bears first emerge from their winter dens, they eat new spring greens supplemented with any winter-kill carrion which is easily located via the bear’s super keen sense of smell, many times more efficient than that of a human. Typically this diet is insufficient to help bears regain the body weight lost during hibernation and any food sources are potentially attractive to bears at this time.  A bear’s sense of smell may lead it to hone in on human-provided food after a winter spent hibernating.  Following are a few tips for preventing bear problems in your home and neighborhood:

  1. Garbage – Store garbage and animal feed inside buildings or in bear-resistant containers. Keep your garbage secured until the morning of your scheduled pickup. Encourage neighbors to do the same.
  2. Gardens and Compost – Plant gardens out in the open, away from cover. Avoid composting meat and turn your compost over frequently. Finely chopped fruit and vegetable matter will decompose faster and is less likely to attract bears. A quality electric fence used properly can keep bears out of gardens and compost piles, and  away from buildings and domestic animals.
  3. Livestock and beehives – Domestic animals, including chickens, may attract bears. Secure your livestock behind electric fences, as well as bee hives.  Bears will eat both the bees and honey.
  4. Bird feeders – Bears love to eat birdseed and suet. Take down bird feeders from April through October. Clean up dropped seeds and hulls.
  5. Barbecues – Regularly clean barbecue grills, especially the grease trap, after each use.
  6. Pets – Feed pets indoors or pick up excess and spilled food between meals and clean all pet dishes.  Avoid overfeeding chicken and other fowl so that no food remains on the ground.
  7. Freezers – Keep freezers locked in a secure building or otherwise out of reach of bears.

A new Washington State Law prohibits the feeding of carnivores, including bears, either intentionally or negligently. Involved parties may be subject to a $1000 fine.  Bears that become habituated to humans and the food they provide are labeled as “problem bears”.  If such bears cannot be successfully relocated far away from human food provided sources of food, they can become repeat offenders. “A fed bear is a dead bear”.

Keep your family and Washington’s bears safe: Be Bear Aware.