An Outdoor View: Bear time

If you haven’t done so already this spring, now would be a good time to think about bears.

The Kenai Peninsula is home to black bears and brown bears. No matter where you live, a bear — or bears — can show up at any time.

I like to think of bears as neighbors who lived here before I did. Hungry neighbors who sometimes get mean if things don’t go their way.

You should expect these neighbors to be ill-mannered. If you have something they want to eat — and that includes pretty much everything — they’ll go well out of their way to drop by for a visit. Don’t expect them to ask for permission to go through your garbage can or the freezer on your deck. They’ll simply eat what they want and leave, without even saying “thanks.”

Below you’ll find advice from experts, gleaned from 13 of the columns I’ve written about bears over the past 30 years.

Brown bears will walk many miles from one food source to another, and they have good memories. Once they find food in a place, they’ll return to that place again and again. This behavior serves them well, except when they start habitually eating garbage, pet food, bird food, livestock food, or worse, livestock.

Once a bear figures out that humans are an easy touch for a meal, it will keep coming back for more, becoming a little more demanding each time.

More often than not, the trouble starts when a juvenile bear, hungry, alone for the first time in its life and not yet very adept at finding food, figures out that humans leave lots of lots of it lying around. Bears learn quickly. If a young bear finds something to eat at one house or cabin, it will check out every house in a neighborhood. The following year — if it survives — it will come right back to the same places. If it’s a female that survives long enough to have cubs, it will teach them the same bad habit.

Bears that get in the habit of receiving food from humans can be dangerous, and inevitably end up being shot. This is why it’s illegal to intentionally feed bears.

Here are some ways to avoid teaching bears to link food to humans, and to stay safe in bear country:

— Don’t teach bears that human food or garbage is an easy meal. Unless you have bear-resistant garbage cans, keep your garbage in airtight bags in your garage.

— Avoid taking anything that smells like food into your tent, including boots or clothing that smell of fish. For camping, consider using an electrified “bear fence” and a bear-resistant food locker.

— When bears hear a fish make splashing noises, they know it’s in trouble and can sometimes be caught. “Playing” a fish will at times attract a bear. If a bear approaches, cut your line or break the fish off, stand your ground, and the bear will usually lose interest and leave. If it doesn’t leave, back slowly away.

— If you fillet fish, cut the carcasses into hand-size pieces and throw them into fast water so they’ll wash downstream. Whole carcasses in the water will attract bears.

— Never run from a bear. You can’t outrun one, and running may trigger a chase.

— Camping near spawning streams is just asking for trouble, especially if any bears that consider humans as providers of food are around.

— Everywhere in Alaska is “bear country.” Be alert.

For your own safety, for the safety of others and for the good of the bears, learn all you can about bear behavior. Without bears, Alaska just wouldn’t be Alaska.

To learn more about bears and how to avoid conflict with them, visit: www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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