Magazine article Sunset

Please Don't Feed the Bears!

Magazine article Sunset

Please Don't Feed the Bears!

Article excerpt

The West's black bear population is booming. Here's what to do if you encounter one in your backyard ... or your backpack

Bears are a peaceable people, and mind their own business," wrote John Muir in 1898. Almost 100 years later, most wildlife officials agree. But lately, bears are finding it harder and harder to keep to themselves.

Why? In recent years, black bear populations in the West have risen at the same time as housing has pushed into their territory. This loss of habitat has caused food supplies to shrink, as have years of drought. As a result, bears are increasingly tempted by easily accessible sources of human food (i.e., carelessly handled garbage). To make matters worse, some bears have actually become smarter in their dealings with humans, learning, for example, how to scare hikers into dropping their food-laden backpacks.

Statistics from two of the West's most popular national parks bear these trends out. In 1991, Yosemite National Park experienced the greatest amount of property damage by black bears in its history--$186,289 spread over 601 incidents (fortunately, only two people were injured). Things were just as lively last summer at Glacier National Park. "We hadn't seen black bear activity like this in Glacier in 15 years," says resource management specialist Gary Gregory. Sixteen bears became so aggressive in raiding campgrounds that they had to be moved. Nine, including one or two that had previously been removed, had to be destroyed, the tragic measure of last resort for an unmanageable bear.

Still, encountering bears in a national park isn't unusual. What's really alarming is finding one in your backyard. "More people are moving into bear habitat, so encounters with bears around rural homes are rising," says Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesperson Brighid Kelly. In one instance outside Aspen, a black bear cub pushed open a sliding glass door that had been left ajar. Entering the house, the bear went into the pantry, dragged out a container of dog food, and proceeded to eat it in the living room. (The bear was removed and relocated without incident.)

All of this has caused wildfire officials to redouble their efforts in educating the public about how to avoid bear encounters. And with this education comes enforcement. In the parks, rangers are playing hardball with visitors by confiscating improperly stored food and issuing tickets to those who flout food-storage regulations. In the suburbs, trash-storage ordinances designed to discourage bears are becoming common.

These new regulations are based on our increasing understanding of black bear behavior. The aim is to diminish the opportunities for a bear to become food conditioned--dependent on manmade food sources--thereby decreasing the chances a bear will become a bold and potentially dangerous campground raider. Experts agree that once a bear has become food conditioned, it will never revert to its natural food-gathering behavior. The bear then becomes a ticking time bomb that must be destroyed before someone is injured.

Bear encounters--from backpack to backyard

What campers and suburbanites alike need to know most about black bears is that they have an acute sense of smell. Even the slightest odor will attract them, which is why bear experts and park-distributed educational materials advise you to keep a spotless camp. In fact, in the backcountry, it's a good idea to cook 100 yards downwind of your tent, which should never be used for storing food or even toothpaste or scented toiletries. For that matter, you ought not sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking, lest the lingering aroma of fresh brook trout lure a bear into your sleeping bag. Adding teeth (but not, we hope, those of the bear) to this advice, most parks have food-storage regulations, which are enforced with fines ranging from $25 to $500.

To help park visitors comply, last summer concessionaires at Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon parks began renting and selling a promising new tool: a lightweight, bear-resistant food container designed for backcountry use. …

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