OLYMPIA - With temperatures rising, hungry black bears have emerged from their dens and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is reminding citizens that they can do their part to avoid problems with the animals.
"The best advice we can offer people is don't feed the bears," said Capt. Bill Hebner, who heads WDFW's regional enforcement activity in northern Puget Sound. "The majority of bear problems begin when people either intentionally or unintentionally feed the animals."
During the week of May 9 through May 15, Fish and Wildlife Enforcement officers responded to several reports of bear sightings, including a male bear near a middle school in Tacoma reportedly rummaging through garbage containers. That bear was captured and has been released in the Cascades. Bear interactions are common daily occurances in some locations like the Long Beach Peninsula. Unsecured garbage containers, pet food and birdfeeders can attract hungry bears looking for a meal, said Hebner, who noted that May 16 through May 22 was national Bear Awareness Week.
While bears naturally avoid people, the animals can lose their instinctive fear of humans and become increasingly aggressive when they are allowed access to those items, Hebner said. That's when the situation can become dangerous for both humans and the animal. "Because our first priority is public safety, bears that have lost their fear of humans are often euthanized," Hebner said. "That is unfortunate, because the animal often winds up paying the price for human carelessness."
In cases where a bear has not behaved aggressively, it may be trapped, marked with an identification tag and released into the wild. Even if a suitable release site can be found, the relocated animal may not survive, said Hebner.
Trapped and relocated bears may be killed by other bears already living in the area, hit by vehicles as they travel to find new territory, or end up back in the area where they had been receiving human handouts. Marked bears that reappear where they were originally captured are euthanized.
Human encounters with bears tend to subside by mid-summer, when berries and other natural foods become available, and then pick up again in fall before the animals enter their dens. Hebner related that people can take the following precautions to reduce the likelihood of an encounter with a bear: Never intentionally feed bears or other wild animals. Keep garbage cans in a garage or another secure area until collection day. Remove pet food from areas accessible to wildlife. Thoroughly clean barbecue grills after each use. Take down birdfeeders until later in summer.
When camping, keep a clean campsite by thoroughly cleaning all cooking utensils after use and sealing uneaten food in airtight containers stored in bear-proof canisters away from sleeping areas.
In the event of an actual encounter with a bear, WDFW offers the following advice: Don't run. Pick up small children. Stand tall, wave your arms above your head and shout. Do not approach the animal and be sure to leave it an escape route. Try to get upwind of the bear so that it can identify you as a human and leave the area.
"By nature, black bears are afraid of humans, and will almost always go out of their way to avoid contact with them," Hebner said. "Only a handful of bear attacks on humans have been recorded in state history."
WDFW encourages those who have a dangerous encounter with wildlife to call 877-933-9847 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. After hours, or on the weekends, people can call the local Washington State Patrol office or 911. More information on living with black bears is available online at wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/bears.htm.