PHOENIX - As temperatures climb and Arizonans head north, human encounters with bears in the high country and in expanding mountain communities are on the increase. Arizona Game and Fish Department officials are asking people to "Be Bear Aware," especially while recreating in the cool pines during Memorial Day weekend. Homeowners and recreationists should take precautions to minimize potential conflicts with bears and other wildlife.
Bear sightings also are on the increase around southern Arizona. The root cause of any human-wildlife encounter is typically food. Keep a clean camp. "Don't intentionally feed wildlife - it will just get you and the wild animal in trouble," said April Howard, the large carnivore biologist with Game and Fish. "Cook and eat your food 100 yards from your sleeping area."
Here are some tips to keep you safe, and to discourage bears from visiting your campsite.
- Never intentionally feed wildlife. Even bird feeders can become attractants if they are not placed out of reach of bears and set up properly to prevent spillage.
- Don't camp near hiking trails, water or berry patches.
- Secure all garbage. To do so, use bear-resistant containers, hang garbage from a tree (garbage should be 10-15 feet high and 4 feet from its hanging surface) or keep garbage in a vehicle.
- Keep tent and sleeping area clear of any food and other scented items such as deodorant, lotion and toothpaste.
- Walk or jog in groups. Pay attention to your surroundings when hiking, jogging or bicycling.
- Supervise your children (especially toddlers) and keep them in sight at all times.
- Keep your pets on a leash - don't allow them to be free roaming. Free roaming pets can be a cause of adverse human/bear encounters, especially dogs chasing female bears with cubs.
- Don't leave pet food out where bears and other wild animals become habituated to it.
- Manage the vegetation around your home to eliminate hiding and daybed use cover for bears and wildlife.
- Remember that the majority of standard coolers are not effective at keeping a bear from breaking in and stealing its contents. There are companies that specialize in bear-resistant containers.
If you encounter a bear consider these suggestions:
- Never get between a female bear and her cubs. Do not try to intervene with a bear chasing your dog back to you. Let the bear focus its attention on your dog and not switch its aggression towards you.
- Stay calm.
- If a bear has not noticed you, do not get its attention. Continue facing it, and slowly back away.
- If a bear has noticed you, make loud noises by clanging pans, using air horns or whatever is available.
- If attacked, fight back. Bear and mountain lion attacks are predation events and you are considered the prey.
- If a bear has noticed you, don't run unless it is dangerously close. Get inside of a vehicle or building. Running elicits what is called a predator-prey response - if you run, the animal might instinctively want to chase and catch you. Despite their imposing size, bears are quick and can reach speeds of 40 mph.
- Make yourself look as big and imposing as possible.
- Speak loudly or yell - let it know you are human.
"Plan and prepare before camping or hiking," Howard said. "Contact the appropriate park or forest service and find out if there has been any bear sightings or issues."
Keep in mind that when wildlife and humans come into conflict, the wildlife will almost always lose. Due to public safety concerns, a bear that is conditioned to humans and causes property damage or injury, or has lost its fear of humans is a dead bear. Don't feed them either intentionally or unintentionally.
Although the department will trap and relocate a nuisance bear that happens to come into conflict with humans, once a bear loses its fear of humans or is habituated to eating human-provided food (both typically occur), the department has limited choices. Capturing and relocating a problem bear is not a viable public safety option.
Another factor to keep in mind is that relocated bears do not always have long life expectancies. Bears are extremely territorial. Putting a bear into another bear's territory is setting the animal up for a different type of conflict -- one that can be fatal.
"Your actions will affect these bears' survival," Howard said, "and that's why it's important to follow these simple bear safety procedures and protocols while camping and hiking so bears don't have to be euthanized."