Friday, June 4, 2010

Living with Critters

Contributed by Norm Nyhuis, Trainer, Evergreen Safety Council
One benefit of living in Northwest is that one doesn’t need to travel far from the city to be in relatively “wild” country. However, as the population density increases, cities grow and housing developments continue to move out into the country, the chances of human / wildlife encounters increases proportionately.

We live in the country, in a heavily wooded area, where the typical property ranges anywhere from two to ten or more acres. As such, encounters with wild life are relatively frequent. Rabbits, ‘possum, coyotes, raccoons and deer all seem to think my vegetable garden and fruit trees – not to mention my tulips and daffodils – were planted solely for their benefit. A recent event caused me to do some research and through this newsletter, share the information with you, our readers.

At last count, we have a dozen or more species of birds that frequent our feeders, and yes we do enjoy watching them as they feed. Mother’s Day morning we opened the curtains to find that our main feeder was missing! Closer inspection disclosed that the feeder which is supported on a pipe system from our deck was lying on the ground, empty! More surprising, the supporting steel pipe was broken in half. An afternoon walk on our trail through our woods, gave us a clue as to the damaged feeder; in a muddy area we found tracks, black bear tracks, and FRESH black bear tracks.

While not all of us live in the woods, most of us have opportunity to either go camping or at least make a day trip for a picnic, into wooded areas. Encountering a black bear is not all that uncommon; knowing a few facts can keep that encounter from turning “bad”.

According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the statewide black bear population in Washington likely ranges between 25,000 and 30,000 animals. Bears usually avoid people, but when they do come into close proximity of each other, the bear’s strength and surprising speed make it potentially dangerous. Most confrontations with bears are the result of a surprise encounter at close range. All bears should be given plenty of respect and room to retreat without feeling threatened.

So here are some bear facts and words of advice from WDFW:
  • In the spring, black bear diets consist mostly of herbaceous plants, from emerging grasses and sedges to horsetail and various flowering plants.
  • In summer, bears typically add ants, bees, grubs, and a host of later emerging plants to their diets.
  • During late summer and fall, bears typically shift their diets toward tree fruits, berries, and nuts, but they still may consume a variety of plants.
  • Fall is a critical season for black bears and they commonly acquire most of their annual fat accumulation at this time. Bears may forage up to 20 hours a day during fall, increasing their body weight by 35 percent in preparation for winter.

Bears tend to avoid humans. However, human-habituated bears are bears that, because of prolonged exposure to people, have lost their natural fear or wariness around people. Human-food-conditioned bears are those that associate people with food. Such bears can become aggressive in their pursuit of a meal.

State wildlife offices receive hundreds of black bear complaints each year regarding urban sightings, property damage, attacks on livestock, and bear/human confrontations. The number one reason for conflict is the result of irresponsibility on the part of people: Access to trash, pet food, bird feeders, and improper storage of food while camping, make up the majority of the calls.

Don’t feed bears. Often people leave food out for bears so they can take pictures of them or show them to visiting friends. Over 90 percent of bear/human conflicts result from bears being conditioned to associate food with humans. A wild bear can become permanently food-conditioned after only one handout experience. The sad reality is that these bears will likely die, being killed by someone protecting their property, or by a wildlife manager having to remove a potentially dangerous bear.

Manage your garbage. Bears will expend a great amount of time and energy digging under, breaking down, or crawling over barriers to get food, including garbage. If you have a pickup service, put garbage out shortly before the truck arrives—not the night before. If you’re leaving several days before pickup, haul your garbage to a dump. If necessary, frequently haul your garbage to a dumpsite to avoid odors.

Remove other attractants. Remove bird feeders (suet and seed feeders), which allow residue to build up on the ground below them, from early March through November. Bring in hummingbird feeders at night. (Better yet: plant bird-friendly landscapes and don’t use feeders.) Harvest orchard fruit from trees regularly (rotting fruit left on the ground is a powerful bear attractant). If you have bear problems and do not use your fruit trees, consider removing them. Do not feed pets outside. Clean barbecue grills after each use. Wash the grill or burn off smells, food residue, and grease; store the equipment in a shed or garage and keep the door closed. If you can smell your barbecue then it is not clean enough. Avoid the use of outdoor refrigerators—they will attract bears.

To avoid encounters with black bears while hiking or camping:

  • Keep a clean camp. Put garbage in wildlife-resistant trash containers.
  • Store food in double plastic bags and, when possible, place the bags in your vehicle's trunk or in wildlife-resistant food lockers. Double-wrapped food may also be placed in a backpack or other container and hang it from a tree branch at least 10 feet above the ground and 4 feet out from the tree trunk. Never store food in your tent.
  • When camping, sleep at least 100 yards from your cooking area and food storage site.
  • Hike in small groups and make your presence known by singing or talking.
  • Keep small children close and on trails.
If you come in close contact with a bear:
  • Stay calm and avoid direct eye contact, which could elicit a charge. Try to stay upwind and identify yourself as a human by standing up, talking and waving your hands above your head.
  • Do not approach the bear, particularly if cubs are present. Give the bear plenty of room.
  • If you cannot safely move away from the bear, and the animal does not flee, try to scare it away by clapping your hands or yelling.
  • If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively. As a last resort, should the attack continue, protect yourself by curling into a ball or lying on the ground on your stomach and playing dead.


  1. This is a very thorough article but I'm surprised you didn't mention carrying and using Bear Spray as a deterrent of a possible attack. That would be a first option before fighting back. Fighting a 300 or 400 lb bear with long claws isn't going to come out to the human's advantage whereas Bear Spray may prevent it from ever getting that up close and personal.

  2. Hi Lindsy: Thanks for your comment. The best defense in the case of an encounter with a bear (or any other wild animal) is to avoid contact, by eliminating the attraction, garbage cans, bird feeders, your campsite food supplies, etc. Sprays, usually intended as aggressive dog deterrents, or sometimes advertised as being for personal safety, that are available for consumer use, are generally very low concentrations. At least one state specifies that the concentration must be no more than 10%, I believe Michigan specifies no more than 2%. Sprays, with higher concentrations of the active ingredients (oleoresin capiscum) are available for Law Enforcement, Animal Control or Fish and Game department officers, but these are generally not available to the public. While in collage, I was a letter carrier; we were issued an OC (pepper)spray for aggressive dogs, it was just about useless. It was hard to aim, and had a very short range - no more than 2 to 3 feet. A fast moving dog (really any animal) is hard to “hit” in any place one would expect the spray to be effective – specifically in the eyes, nose or mouth. As you said, 2 to 3 feet is really "up close and personal". The person attempting to use the spray often ends up spraying themselves, further hampering any attempt to defend yourself. When attacked, one is too busy to consider wind direction - if you spray into the wind, you increase the chance you will spray yourself. Washington Dept of Fish and Game agrees that the sprays that are commonly available probably will do no good, and may just further aggravate the attacking animal. There are reports from Law Enforcement officers that some people are not effected by even the higher concentration oleoresin capsicum sprays, and when sprayed only makes them more aggressive. I suspect this may be the case for animals too, some may be affected to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly, carry a spray if you feel safer doing so, but be aware that the effectiveness is dependent on many factors, many of which may be beyond our control.


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