4 tips for staying safe in bear country

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is bear country and they are amazing animals. But most of us probably wouldn’t feel comfortable coming face to face with one in our campsite. If you follow a few simple steps, you can decrease the chances of that happening and can help keep you and the bears safe.

Black bears are the only native bear species currently in Utah, and they have an amazing sense of smell. They also 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 in the bear’s natural habitat.

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Black bears are the only native bear species currently in Utah, and they have an amazing sense of smell.

“Even though they’re incredibly strong and surprisingly fast, black bears will typically do everything they can to avoid people,” Darren DeBloois, mammals coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said. “When a bear finds food, though, that all changes. Once it finds food, 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 this summer:

“Bear-proof” your food

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 grill clean

After you’re through 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 toss food scraps and other trash 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 people safe.

“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 this year.”

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.

For more tips on staying safe around black bears, visit the DWR website and the Wild Aware Utah website. A video about bear safety is also available on the DWR YouTube channel.

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