HARRISBURG – With spring well underway across the state, many Pennsylvanians are spending more time outdoors and seeing more wildlife – and signs of wildlife – in their yards and other places they frequent. Among the wildlife becoming more visible are Pennsylvania’s roughly 15,000 black bears, all of which are looking for food.
Since bears are found throughout most of the state, Mark Ternent, Pennsylvania Game Commission black bear biologist, said bear sightings are always common at this time of year. Food for bears is naturally scarce in the spring until vegetation begins to green-up, but bears emerging from dens need to find something to eat after fasting for several months. Thus, sightings and, in some cases, conflicts increase as bears look for food, including in backyards.
“Now is the time to keep bears from becoming a nuisance later in the summer,” Ternent said. “Bears that wander near residential areas in search of springtime foods are less likely to stay or return if they do not find anything rewarding. Conversely, if bears find food in your backyards they quickly learn to associate food with residential areas and begin to spend more time in those areas. Then encounters between humans and bears increase, as does property damage, the risk of human injury and vehicle accidents involving bears.”
Ternent noted capturing and moving bears that have become habituated to humans is a costly and sometimes ineffective way of addressing the problem. That is why wildlife agencies around the country tell people that a “fed bear is a dead bear.”
“The best solution is to prevent bears from finding something to eat at your house in the first place,” Ternent said. “Anything edible placed outside for any reason – whether it is food for wildlife, pets or unsecured garbage – gives bears a reason to visit your property. Homeowners should begin now to remove food sources to reduce their changes of attracting bears to their properties.”
Ternent listed five suggestions that could prevent attracting bears to a property:
Play it smart. Do not feed wildlife. Food placed outside for wildlife, such as corn for squirrels, may attract bears. Even bird feeders can become “bear magnets.” Bear conflicts with bird feeding generally don’t arise in the winter because bears are in their winter dens. But at other times of the year, birdfeeders will attract problem bears. If you do chose to feed songbirds during the summer, Audubon Pennsylvania offers some tips, including: avoid foods that are particularly attractive for bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet; bring feeders inside at night; or suspend feeders from high crosswires so they are at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet from anything a bear can climb, including overhead limbs.
Keep it clean. Don’t put out garbage until pick-up day; don’t throw table scraps out back; don’t add fruit or vegetable wastes to your compost pile; and clean your barbecue grill regularly. If you have pets and feed them outdoors, consider placing food dishes inside overnight. Encourage your neighbors to do the same.
Keep your distance. If a bear shows up in your backyard, stay calm. Shout at it like you would to chase an unwanted dog. Don’t approach it. If the bear won’t leave, call the nearest Game Commission regional office or local police department for assistance.
Eliminate temptation. Bears that visit your area are often drawn there. Neighbors need to work together to reduce an area’s appeal to bears. Ask area businesses to keep dumpsters closed and bear-proofed (chained or locked shut with a metal lid).
Check please! If your dog is barking, or cat is clawing at the door to get in, try to determine what has alarmed your pet. But do it cautiously, using outside lights to full advantage and from a safe position, such as a porch or an upstairs window. All unrecognizable outside noises and disturbances should be checked, but don’t do it on foot with a flashlight. Black bears blend in too well with nighttime surroundings providing the chance for a close encounter.
Pennsylvanians also are reminded that if they see cubs alone, it does not necessarily mean they have been abandoned or orphaned.
“During the spring, sows may leave their cubs for several hours, typically up in a tree, while they forage,” Ternent said. “If you encounter cubs, leave the area the way you entered it and leave the cubs alone. Staying in the vicinity prevents the mother from returning or may aggravate her, and attempting to care for the cubs may result in exposure to wildlife diseases or habituate the young bears to humans.
“Cubs that have been removed from the wild and habituated to people are difficult to rehabilitate for release back into the wild and may result in the cub being euthanized.”
Although Pennsylvania’s bear population has been increasing for some time, statewide estimates over the past few years have hovered around 15,000. Last year, hunters harvested 3,458 bears. Additionally, more than 300 bears were reported killed on highways.
“As a result of Pennsylvania’s large human and bear populations, it is not uncommon for people and bears to encounter one another,” Ternent said. “These encounters occur because housing developments and businesses continue to encroach into bear habitat, while bears also have expanded their range closer to human populated areas. Chance encounters in the field also appear to be more common than before in some areas.”
Ternent noted that although bears are not strangers to Pennsylvanians, bears are misunderstood by many.
“Bears needn’t be feared, nor should they be dismissed as harmless. They simply need to be respected,” Ternent said. He stressed that in the past 10 years fewer than 15 people have been injured by bears in Pennsylvania, and there are no known records of a Pennsylvania black bear killing a human.
“Injury from a black bear is most often the result of a human intentionally or unintentionally threatening a bear, its cubs, or a nearby food source, and the best reaction is to defuse the threat by leaving the area in a quiet, calm manner,” Ternent said. He also advised:
Stay Calm. If you see a bear and it hasn’t seen you, leave the area calmly. Talk or make noise while moving away to help it discover your presence. Choose a route that will not intersect with the bear if it is moving.
Get Back. If you have surprised a bear, slowly back away while talking softly. Face the bear, but avoid direct eye contact. Do not turn and run; rapid movement may be perceived as danger to a bear that is already feeling threatened. Avoid blocking the bear’s only escape route and try to move away from any cubs you see or hear. Do not attempt to climb a tree. A female bear may falsely interpret this as an attempt to get at her cubs, even though the cubs may be in a different tree.
Pay Attention. If a bear is displaying signs of nervousness – pacing, swinging its head, or popping its jaws – about your presence, leave the area. Some bears may bluff charge to within a few feet. If this occurs, stand your ground, wave your arms wildly, and shout at the bear. Turning and running could elicit a chase and you cannot outrun a bear.
Fight Back. If a bear attacks, fight back as you continue to leave the area. Black bears have been driven away with rocks, sticks, binoculars, car keys, or even bare hands.
“Learning about bears and being aware of their habits is a responsibility that comes with living in rural and suburban Pennsylvania or recreating in the outdoors,” Ternent said.
In 2003, a regulation prohibiting the feeding of bears went into effect. The regulation made it unlawful to intentionally “lay or place food, fruit, hay, grain, chemical, salt or other minerals that may cause bears to congregate or habituate an area.” The exceptions to this regulation are “normal or accepted farming, habitat management practices, oil and gas drilling, mining, forest management activities or other legitimate commercial or industrial practices.”
The regulation enables Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officers (WCOs) to issue written notices that direct landowners to discontinue other forms of wildlife feeding, even if not intended for bears, if the feeding is attracting bears to the area and causing problems with bears in the neighborhood.
The intent of this regulation is to reduce human-bear conflicts, not to put a stop to other wildlife feeding or songbird feeding. However, the regulation enables Game Commission WCOs to issue written notices that direct landowners to discontinue songbird and/or other wildlife feeding if bears are being attracted to the area and causing a nuisance for property owners or neighbors.
To report nuisance bears, contact the Game Commission Region Office nearest you. The telephone numbers are: Northwest Region Office in Franklin, Venango County, 814-432-3188; Southwest Region Office in Bolivar, Westmoreland County, 724-238-9523; Northcentral Region Office in Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, 570-398-4744; Southcentral Region Office in Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, 814-643-1831; Northeast Region Office in Dallas, Luzerne County, 570-675-1143; and Southeast Region Office in Reading, Berks County, 610-926-3136.
More information on bears is available on the agency’s Web site by looking in the “Hunting” section, then choosing the photograph of a black bear.