Avoiding bear encounters is human's responsibility
Every year around this time, American black bears find themselves in "sticky" situations. Perhaps it's a raid on an apiarist's bee yard, or an untimely head-dive into a campground garbage can or dumpster, or, more commonly, backyard birdfeeder break-ins. Whatever the case may be, it's no fault of the bears - they're only doing what comes naturally; that is, searching for food, eating, and searching for more food. It's the way of the bear.
Over the years I, too, have had black bears come - quite literally - knocking at my doorstep. I never blamed the bears for these encounters because it was always my fault in the first place. In each of the cases, I was feeding wild birds birdseed and sugar water. I've had bird feeders pulled down, bitten into and destroyed; I've seen their muddied footprints on my house's windowsills; and I've experienced being awakened by a hysterically barking dog in the middle of the night.
Indeed, while the experiences of a marauding bruin is disconcerting to some people, encounters with bears really shouldn't be all too surprising if you happen to live in bear country, not to mention if you also happen to be doing things that will attract bears to your property. Again, like feeding wild birds, or leaving the barbecue grill outdoors after use, or leaving garbage cans accessible, or feeding your pets outside and so on.
Believe me, if you provide bears a reason to come to your property they will come. Once a black bear finds something good to eat, he or she will continue to return until the food is all gone. In essence, the bear or bears have been trained. And in order to discourage them from repeated visits, it's our job to "untrain" the bear. In most instances, it's that easy.
Food, and the scent of food, is the driving force behind a black bear's travels. Aside from increased activities during the May breeding season, especially by male bears, black bears spend the greatest portion of their daily lives foraging and looking for food. They accomplish this through not only familiarity with their woodland homes and a reliance on past experiences, but they also employ, non-stop, their incredible noses to find food. No human being can begin to comprehend just how powerful and sensitive a bear's nose really is.
As such, encounters with bears become all too common, if not expected, this time of the year. As well, it's important for those people who live and recreate in bear country to remember that being in bear country not only has its many joys, but there also are a few things that folks should definitely be aware of.
The primary factor is, of course, food. Food is what motivates all bears right now and through autumn. Nearly every waking moment, black bears are busy searching for food and eating as much as they possibly can in order to put on enough fat reserves to sustain them during their long hibernation this coming winter.
For such insatiable appetites, it's no wonder why black bears will become bold enough to lumber into towns and raid garbage containers, pull hummingbird feeders from windows or knock down barbecue grills or birdfeeders.
If bears do show up at your property looking for a handout, it's time to quit feeding the birds and remove the feeders altogether. Garbage receptacles should be bear-proofed, emptied often, or placed inside a building or some other structure. And energized fences should be constructed around beehives to keep salivating bears out. As well, some people also build electrified fences around their gardens and apple orchards. In other words, take precautions to reduce encounters with bears.
If camping in bear country, keep as clean and odorless a campsite as you can. Clean your fish far from the encampment, bury the remains or leave on exposed areas like large rocks for birds such as gulls and other scavenging birds. And by all means, don't bring food or wear fishy or food-scented clothes inside your tent or camper.
For the bird-feeding enthusiast living in bear country, especially when natural foods aren't abundant, avoid feeding wild birds from April through October. If you do persist in feeding birds, be sure to suspend feeders at least 10 feet high and 10 feet away from climbable objects. Additionally, it's recommended to remove birdfeeders each night, including hummingbird and suet feeders, and bring them inside overnight until the next morning.
Observing the normally shy black bear is frequently a thrill for anyone lucky enough to see one. However, that's not necessarily the case for everyone. Bears frighten some people. If a black bear does find its way into your backyard, one of the best things we can do is to not panic or get too close. And if we've done our job and have left nothing outdoors for a bear to eat, chances are very good that the bear will leave. Sometimes making loud noises will hasten their departure.
The overriding fact to remember about black bears, and learning how to live with them, is respecting their extraordinary sense of smell. I've read that a black bear's sense of smell is seven times greater than a bloodhound's. That in itself doesn't sound very amazing until you consider that a bloodhound's sense of smell is about 300 times greater than your average pooch. Still not convinced? It's been estimated that a black bear's sense of smell is 2,100 times greater than our own.
American black bears are symbolic of the wilds of Minnesota. These wonderful animals thrive throughout our forests and woodlands and, for the most part, remain virtually unnoticed. Still, problems between bears and humans inevitably will occur as we continue to build houses and recreate where they live. Knowing what to do when we encounter a bear, or how to reduce the likelihood of an encounter altogether, is our responsibility as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org