An ounce of prevention can mean life or death for a bear

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 7, 2014 

The recent mauling of a Florida woman by a black bear underscores the importance of taking the necessary precautions to avoid a similar encounter in our community. The spring season brings hungry bears emerging from their dens looking for available food sources to replace the calories lost during winter. If you are feeding bears, intentionally or unintentionally, the results will likely lead to conflict and this conflict can be prevented.

The mauling in Florida occurred in a neighborhood where urban sprawl has fractured bear habitat and allowed people to live alongside long-established bear trails. Having left her garage door open and several garbage cans easily accessible, it was reported that the woman was attacked when she walked in on as many as five bears "of various sizes" rooting through her trash (this was a defensive attack, not a predatory one).

It's safe to say that the Florida woman did not intend to feed these bears, but that's not always the case. There have been several recent reports in Washington of residents intentionally feeding bears. Some people really enjoy the idea of a bear frequenting their backyard. Either way, the outcome is most often the same. As the old adage says, "A fed bear is a dead bear." If a bear becomes habituated to human-provided food and loses its natural fear of humans, it is likely doomed to be destroyed. In an effort to curb the number of bears being destroyed and the number of cubs orphaned due to this human negligence, it is now illegal in Washington State to feed large carnivores intentionally or not. Washington law RCW 77.15.790 rules that "Negligently feeding, attempting to feed, or attracting large carnivores to land or a building," is illegal. And RCW 77.15.792 rules illegal "Intentionally feeding or attempting to feed large wild carnivores or intentionally attracting large wild carnivores to land or a building."

Rich Beausoleil, the bear and cougar specialist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife states that, "This law was established mostly for the cases of intentional feedings, which are common. We never intended this law to be used as a hammer, but after being warned on more than one occasion, unintentional feeding can also result in a fine." Beausoleil goes on to say that, "If folks would simply address the 'Big 3' attractants that cause 95 percent of the human-bear conflict, we would virtually eliminate these issues. The three attractants are garbage, bird seed, and fruit trees; when these high calorie foods are offered to bears, how can you blame them for taking it? That's why, more so with any other species, bear conflict management is actually people management."

If a bear shows up in your community looking for a food source and is unable to find it, they'll move on, they have to. Preventing bear visitations, in the first place, is the best way to avoid an unwanted encounter. Wait to feed wild birds until mid-November, when their natural food sources diminish. Store your garbage indoors until the day of pickup or use a bear-resistant garbage can. If you have an orchard, pick up any fruit that has fallen and trim low hanging branches. Store your barbeque and pet food indoors, and don't feed your pets outside. If you notice that your neighbors have attractants on their property talk to them about prevention.

Black bears are far more common than grizzly bears in the North Cascades, and the things you do to prevent conflict with one species also applies to the other. Recreationalists should take the following precautions: be extra vigilant if you hike alone or travel in groups, keep dogs on a leash, and make noise in areas of limited visibility or where signs of bears have been detected. Bears do not like to be surprised. When camping overnight, bring a bear-resistant container to store food and other attractants or hang your food out of reach of bears. Carry bear spray and have it readily available in the very rare case of encountering a bear that charges.

Be part of the solution this spring, not part of the problem. These few handy tips can go a long way to keep both you and the bears safe from an unwanted encounter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rose Oliver is the North Cascades Field Coordinator for Western Wildlife Outreach. For more information on what to do in your community or in the wild to lessen your chance of a negative encounter with wildlife, go online to westernwildlife.org.

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