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The “Bear” Essentials

Local biologists offer tips to discourage “nuisance bears”

Warning.  Bears are currently active in this area.

That’s the warning prominently emblazoned across yellow U. S. Forest Service signs posted last week at the Barren Fork Campground, and it is a warning that is applicable throughout McCreary County as an increasing number of black bear sightings are reported to local officials and personnel of the U. S. Forest Service and Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

The surge in reports is not unexpected since springtime typically brings about an increase in the number of bear sightings in McCreary County, correlating with a growing black bear population.

“At this time of year, black bears are beginning to be more active and are out looking for food,” Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Biologist Mike Strunk commented.  “Although the male bears remain fairly active through the winter months as long as they have a food source, the reports of nuisance bears pick up in the spring when availability of food is at its worst.”

“This year, the bears seem to be a little bit more active,” Strunk continued.  “There’s just not a lot of food out there.  The only food they really have are insects and left-over acorns and beech nuts.”

“Black bears are roaming a wider than normal range now,” U. S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Joe Metzmeier concurred.  “That will probably continue until the blackberries ripen.  Right now, bears are out trying to find food and get their bellies full.”

In addition to looking for scarce food, Strunk also explained that this is the time of year when yearlings are being “ran off” from home by their mothers.

“This is the time of year when mother bears chase away their young,” Strunk remarked.  “Cubs spend about a year with their mothers teaching them how to survive.  In March or April, after leaving the den for the second winter, it is time for the cubs to get out on their own.  The mother bears will keep them around for a short time during the second spring before running them off.  The female yearlings typically stay fairly close to the mothers’ home range, but the males roam great distances.”

When day active sightings repeatedly occur, Forest Service campground warning signs are posted to protect bears and humans from each other and to educate the public about not feeding the bears.  According to both Strunk and Metzmeier, black bears are very timid creatures who are normally scared of humans.   Generally, black bears will run off when they have a close encounter with people.  However, problems arise when bears become acclimated to humans and their food and when they feel cornered or trapped.

“It’s a lot easier to take steps to avoid creating a nuisance bear problem than it is to correct it,” Strunk, whose department has already fielded approximately thirty-five to forty nuisance bear complaints in McCreary County this year, emphasized.  “Once a bear loses that natural fear of people and gets accustomed to looking for easy food sources created by humans, it’s hard to correct the problems that occur.”

Metzmeier added, “We usually start receiving frequent sightings of bears in campgrounds, such as Barren Fork, at this time of year.  We try to get ahead of the game when there is reason to believe that the bear has been rewarded with food by posting signs and making people more conscientious about not attracting bears to their campsites.  Typically, it is only when bears get habituated to food intended for people and lose their fear of humans that problems occur.  Once that happens, safety issues can arise.”

Strunk reminds the public that intentional or unintentional feeding of bears on public or private land is illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.  Within the Daniel Boone National Forest, the U. S. Forest Service enforces its own food storage restrictions by requiring that food cannot be left unattended unless properly stored in (a) bear-resistant containers, (b) a closed, motor vehicle with a solid top, a hard-body trailer, or (c) suspended at least ten feet clear of the ground at all points and at least four feet horizontally from the supporting tree or pole and any other tree or pole adjacent to the support.  The Forest Service also prohibits burning or burying any food, refuse, or bear attractant and requires that any disposal of food or refuse be in bear-resistant trash containers.

Bears have a highly developed sense of smell and remarkable memories.  In hopes of finding a tasty treat, they will often return in the spring to garbage cans raided earlier in the fall.

“Over ninety percent of nuisance bear reports in Kentucky are garbage related, and this year, probably ninety-nine percent of the reports we have received in McCreary County are garbage or food scrap related,’” Strunk shared.  “If we could get a handle on the garbage problem, we would eliminate the bulk of our nuisance bear problems.”

Strunk offered several tips for those wishing to avoid nuisance bears.

First, homeowners need to avoid keeping any type of garbage outside.  Garbage for pick-up should not be placed at the road-side overnight but should, instead, be placed out on the day of pickup.

Pet food should be kept indoors, and animals being fed outdoors should be given only the amount of food they can eat.  Automatic feeders are discouraged.

Food scraps should not be tossed in a yard or “over the hill.”

Bird feeders should be taken down at night or hung high enough with rope so as to be out of reach of bears.  (Bird feeders can be removed in the spring or summer since birds naturally have a ready supply of food.)

Keep BBQ grills, picnic tables, etc. clean and rinse out garbage cans.

Use electric fencing to discourage bears from roaming around bee hives, gardens, and fruit trees.

Metzmeier advised campers to be very careful about the proper storage and disposal of food items.

“Bears looking for food will be attracted to a greasy grill, a stick used to roast a hotdog, or an abandoned pop can,” Metzmeier remarked.  “Campers can’t be too careful when it comes to properly storing and disposing of food items.  If bears are rewarded by finding food in a campsite, they may continue to visit campsites expecting to find some easy meals.  It’s important for bears to not find food and be rewarded.  If a bear goes to a bear proof container and doesn’t get rewarded with food, most likely, it will soon give up and move on somewhere else to find something to eat.”

Bears are usually the ones who suffer the most once they become acclimated to humans and human food sources.  These “James Dean” or “live fast, die young bears” tend to die younger because they don’t use their natural instincts and succumb to human-related problems such as being hit by automobiles.

Metzmeier and Strunk both expressed concern over bears, particularly mothers and their cubs, who become dependent on human food sources.

“The cubs really don’t stand a chance,” Strunk said.  “Once they get a taste and start depending on human food sources, there is not a lot we can do to break the bad habits and save the cubs as they get older.”

When responding to bear complaints, officials first work with the landowner by providing technical assistance by phone or conducting a visit.  Efforts are made to correct the problem including the removal of any food sources, assisting with fencing, etc.

“Typically, if a landowner removes an attractant (food source, etc.), the bear will move on,” Strunk commented.  “If the bear doesn’t leave, we may try hazing the animal with non-lethal ammunition to break the habit of the bear getting food without negative consequences.  As a last resort, we may trap and relocate a nuisance bear, but that is usually not successful.  Bears, with their sense of smell and amazing memory, simply find their way back home or find new locations to continue their nuisance behavior.”

While some might argue that learning to co-exist peacefully with black bears in McCreary County is more of a nuisance than it’s worth, both biologists pointed to benefits of the black bear population.

“The potential for tourism, just like in the Smokies, is unbelievable,” Strunk commented.  “In addition, the presence of black bears is an important indicator that our forests are in optimum condition. With our quality of forests and wildlife, our children can experience wildlife and nature in ways other children don’t experience.”

“A bear running through a campground is not necessarily a bad thing-it’s usually only when they get rewarded with food that it becomes a problem,” Metzmeier remarked.  “We have bears here, and we want people to see and enjoy them.”

Strunk encouraged the public to report sighting of bears because those reports help wildlife management officials determine the location and number of bears in the area.  Most importantly, Strunk stressed the importance of individuals reporting nuisance bears immediately. “Immediately reporting a nuisance bear helps us help the landowner quickly,” Strunk emphasized.  “And it helps us correct the problem with the bear before it becomes impossible to solve.”

Bear reports can be made by calling 376-8083 during normal business hours (M-F) or 1-800-25ALERT (1-800-252-5378) for wildlife or law enforcement dispatch at any time 24/7.


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