Bear conflicts may increase during drought years; here's how to stay safe
Salt Lake City — Black bears are the only species of bear in Utah, and they live and roam across much of the state. The likelihood of conflicts with bears often increases during drought years when a bear's normal food supply is decreased, leading them to seek alternate food sources.
Bears typically come out of hibernation in March or April, but similar to last year, they emerged a little earlier than usual, due to the low snow conditions and early warm weather. Drought conditions impact plants and other root-like vegetation, which make up 90% of a black bear's diet, so Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists think bears may be looking for alternate food sources in other areas this year.
"The lower food supply could lead to more bear conflicts this summer as bears look more broadly for food," DWR Game Mammals Coordinator Darren DeBloois said. "We're anticipating a possible increase in incidents this year of bears getting into people's garbage and scavenging for food."
Bears have an amazing sense of smell and have no problem eating the same type of food that people eat. As a result, many of the conflicts between people and bears happen because the bears start scavenging for the food that humans are eating and cooking while camping — often in the bear's natural habitat.
"Even though they're incredibly strong and surprisingly fast, black bears will typically do everything they can to avoid people," DeBloois said. "When a bear finds food, though, that all changes. A bear will often become aggressive toward anything it perceives as threatening the area where it found the food — that includes people."
Here are a few simple tips to keep both you and the bears safe while you are out recreating in their territory or if you live in the foothills or canyons of Utah.
Bear-proof your food and supplies
Store your food, snacks and scented items (such as deodorant and toothpaste) in an area where a bear can't get to them. Do not leave them out on tables or keep them in your tent. Storing them in a locked trailer or locking them in the trunk of your car are both good options. Storing food and scented items in these areas will reduce the chance that a bear smells them. And, if a bear does make its way to the area where you're staying, if it isn't rewarded with food, it will likely move on.
Keep your cooking area clean
After you've finished eating, thoroughly clean utensils and anything else that was used to prepare or eat the food. Don't dump oil or grease from pots or pans onto the ground. Instead, put the oil or grease in a container, and take it home with you. By keeping your campsite or cabin area clean, you reduce the chance that a bear will smell food and trash, and be lured to your camp.
Keep your campsite clean
Don't leave food scraps and other trash scattered around your campsite or cabin area. Instead, put it in trash bags, and take it home with you. Make sure to wipe down picnic tables and keep the area free of food and other debris. Always keep your campsite or cabin area clean because a dirty campsite can attract bears long after you've left.
"If a bear visits the area after you leave and then someone comes into that area to camp, you've created a potentially dangerous situation," DeBloois said.
Never feed a bear
This may seem like common sense, but it's worth noting. Although bear cubs may seem cute, you should absolutely never feed one — or an adult bear for that matter. They are wild animals and natural predators.
Once a bear loses its fear of people, wildlife biologists and conservation officers are left with something they dread: having to euthanize an animal to keep the public safe. By not providing a bear with food, you can help keep it safe too.
"We got into the wildlife profession because we love wildlife," DeBloois says. "We enjoy managing and protecting animals so Utahns can get outdoors and enjoy them. Having to euthanize an animal — because someone didn't do something as simple as keeping their campsite clean and storing food in a secure area — is tough. Please don't put us in that situation."
Bear-proof your outdoor garbage cans
Many bear reports that the DWR receives each year involve bears getting into trash cans or dumpsters in neighborhoods and at cabins. Make sure to store your trash in a secure location or bear-proof container. If you don't have access to a bear-safe garbage can or dumpster, make sure to store your garbage can in your garage and put it out for pick up in the morning, rather than the night before. Also, make sure to clean your trash container regularly to eliminate some of the odors that attract bears.
Remove items that will attract a bear to your house
Utah is bear country, and especially so if you live in the foothills or other mountainous parts of the state. It is important to properly secure or clean anything in your yard that may attract a bear. Some of these include:
- Birdfeeders (both seed and hummingbird)
- Fruit trees
- Compost piles
- Pet food and water bowls
- Unsupervised outdoor pets (especially at night)
- Barbecue grills
Know what to do if you encounter a bear
- Stand your ground: Never back up, lie down or play dead. Stay calm and give the bear a chance to leave. Prepare to use your bear spray or another deterrent.
- Don't run away or climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers and can run up to 35 mph — you cannot outclimb or outrun them.
- Know bear behavior. If a bear stands up, grunts, moans or makes other sounds, it's not being aggressive. These are the ways a bear gets a better look or smell and expresses its interest.
- If a black bear attacks, always fight back. And never give up! People have successfully defended themselves with almost anything: rocks, sticks, backpacks, water bottles and even their hands and feet.
When to report a bear sighting
If you live in the foothills or canyon areas of Utah, there is a chance you may see or encounter a bear. Here is when you need to report a bear sighting to the DWR:
- If you see a bear in the foothills or canyon areas, they should only be reported if they are being aggressive or if they are getting into trash, fruit trees or causing damage.
- Report a bear that has wandered into lower-elevation areas and is within city limits or in heavily-populated areas so the DWR can relocate it.