Spring could bring contact with black bears

June 5, 2007 


    Scientific name:
    Ursus americanus
    Where found: Forested foothills and mountains


    Black bears usually will avoid people. But there are some steps you can take to make sure your paths don’t cross.
    • Don’t feed them.
    • Tighten lids on garbage cans. Store the cans in a garage or other secure area until the trash is collected. Don’t put the trash out the night before it’s to be picked up. Take it out in the morning.
    • Keep pet food away from places where they could get at them. Feed your pets inside.
    • Clean barbecue grills after each use.
    • Take down birdfeeders in spring and summer. Put them back up in fall when nature’s food sources become scarce.
    • Keep your campsite free of temptation by cleaning cooking utensils and putting your food in airtight containers that are, in turn, stored in bear-resistant canisters at least 100 yards away from where you sleep.
    • Communities with bear problems should use bear-resistant trash cans.
    • Hike in small groups. Make enough noise, by singing or talking, to avoid surprising black bears. If you’re hiking with children, make sure they stay close to the group and in plain sight in front of you.
    • Stay away from dead animals, especially deer or elk that have been recently killed or partially covered. Black bears are primarily vegetarian but they are scavengers that eat carrion.
    • If you come face-to-face with a bear, don’t run. It can reach speeds of at least 30 miles per hour, which is much faster than you. Also, running might trigger its instinct to chase.
    • If you’re with a small child, pick up the child and stand tall. Everyone should wave their arms above their heads and shout. That way they’ll know you’re human and not prey.
    • Don’t get between a bear and her cubs.
    • Don’t approach a bear; back away slowly and give the animal an escape route.
    Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Drivers headed up to the Mt. Baker Recreation Area at the end of May to participate in Ski to Sea got an eyeful of a black bear serenely munching on grass growing alongside the road.

When black bears first come out of their winter dens — where they lay low because food is scarce and the weather is harsh — from March to April, they’ll eat grass and plants such as skunk cabbage to get by.

The bears aren’t considered true hibernators, but their metabolism slows. That’s because their body temperature remains normal, and they can be awakened easily, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. So eating those first shoots of spring serves another function for the bears.

“It starts their digestive system working again,” says Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager for state Fish and Wildlife, of such meals.

It also tides them over until berries begin ripening in mid-June.

Black bears eat animals and fish as well as plants and insects but they do have a preference.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, they’re vegetarian,” Martorello says.

There are more than 600,000 black bears in North America, with at least 25,000 in Washington State. And though they’re called black bears, their colors also can be brown, cinnamon or reddish-blond. Their muzzle is brown and they often have a patch of white on their chests. The sides of their faces are straight, compared to the profiles of grizzly bears that look more curved.

Adult black bears weigh an average of 150 to 225 pounds, making them the smallest of the bear family. They’re five to six feet long and two to three feet tall. Out in the wild, they can live 20 years or longer. They’re loners, except for females with cubs, and are usually most active at dusk and dawn.

While they usually shun human contact, the bears also are notorious for wandering through rural neighborhoods in search of food this time of year when nature’s offerings are not yet plentiful.

“They want to be away from people … but it’s such a tough time of the year that sometimes they find themselves digging into bird feeders, digging in trash cans,” Martorello explains.

If you encounter one?

“Like any wild animal, just give that animal space. Some people are a little nervous around them. They’re not an aggressive animal,” he says.

But they are carnivores, Martorello adds, so treat them with respect.

Reach Kie Relyea at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2234.

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