The recent black bear sighting at Birch Bay Village is a good reminder to all Whatcom County residents that you too can have an encounter with a black bear in your community. Washington State is home to as many as 25,000 black bears, with an estimated 6,000 in the North Cascades alone. The vast majority of bears want to avoid people but with the warming spring temperatures and easy food sources near residential areas, many black bears are making their way into communities looking for an easy meal.
Black bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Eighty to 85 percent of a black bear's diet is plant material, while the remaining 15 percent is made up of animal protein. There are more than 100 native plant species in the North Cascades that they enjoy, but black bears will eat almost anything, such as grubs from a bumblebee nest, ants, voles, grasses and berries. They are also opportunistic and intelligent, meaning they will take advantage of whatever is available.
Since black bears emerging from their dens have just five to seven months to gain enough weight to sustain themselves throughout the winter, easily obtainable, high-calories meals like food items in garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food and compost piles often attract bears and bring them in close proximity to humans. And once they find a good food source, much like a dog begging at a dinner table, they will keep coming back for more.
Whether it is a bear's first visit or a repeat visit to someone's yard, their presence may lead to conflict. Bears that are fed intentionally or unintentionally by people often lose their fear of humans, may become aggressive, and may potentially cause property damage. Once a bear becomes food-conditioned and habituated, wildlife agencies may be forced to kill it or relocate it. Either way, it's not a good situation for the bear. A fed bear usually means a dead bear. And as of late, a fed bear could also mean a $1,000 fine. Due to the high number of orphaned cubs and relocated bears in the state, a new Washington State law, RCW 77.15.790, prohibits negligent feeding, intentional feeding, or simply attracting large wild carnivores to your land or building.
BEAR SAFETY TIPS
Here are some tips to help keep you and your neighbors from having a negative interaction with a black bear in your community, and to hopefully help keep you from having to paying a $1,000 fine:
Garbage: Store garbage and animal feed inside buildings or in bear-resistant containers and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Do not leave food, scraps, garbage, recycling or pet food accessible to bears. Keep your garbage secured until the morning of your scheduled pickup. Be particularly aware of very odorous food scraps such as fish and meat scraps - store them in the freezer until garbage day.
Gardens and compost: Composts, fruit trees and beehives are powerful bear attractants, as are vegetable and flower gardens, it's best to enclose them in electric fencing. Avoid composting meat and fish, turn your compost over frequently and add lime or calcium to decrease odors.
Livestock and fowl: Domestic animals, including chickens, may attract bears. Secure your livestock behind electric fences, especially at night and keep their food in a secure location.
Bird feeders: Bears love to eat birdseed and suet. Take down bird feeders from April through November or hang them well out of a bear's reach. Clean up dropped seeds and hulls.
Barbecues: Regularly clean barbecue grills, especially the grease trap, after each use. Store inside if possible.
Pets: Feed pets indoors or pick up excess and spilled food between meals and clean all pet dishes. Keep pets inside at night if possible. Do not leave pet food, livestock food, or poultry feed outside without electric fencing
Freezers: Keep freezers locked in a secure building or otherwise out of reach of bears.
Orchards: Try to pick fruit from the trees on your property regularly and clean any fruit that has fallen. Rotting fruit left on the ground is a powerful bear attractant.
For more information on coexisting with Washington's bears, go online to westernwildlife.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rose Oliver is the North Cascades field coordinator for Western Wildlife Outreach. She lives in the small town of Marblemount near the gateway to North Cascades National Park and provides education on large carnivores, including bears, wolves and cougars to both Skagit and Whatcom counties.