SALT LAKE CITY — The number of bear rummaging incidents in Utah campgrounds and elsewhere is more than twice than it was last year at this time, prompting state wildlife officials to issue a warning for people to exercise proper food storage safety.
So far this month, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources employees have responded to 25 reports of bears getting into garbage, rummaging through campsites or residential garbage cans, compared to 11 in 2018 at this time.
The agency also points out that 20 of these reports originated in central Utah and along the Wasatch Front, while the 11 last year were scattered across the state.
Scott Root, the agency's Central Region outreach manager, said two bears on Friday followed a pair of hikers through the parking lot at Brighton Ski Resort at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Root said based on the information he was given, he believes it was a sow and her cub. The bears growled at the hikers.
On Sunday, he believes the same two animals encountered a group of five hikers in the same area. In that incident, the bear did a "bluff charge," in which it ran a few feet and abruptly halted.
Root said that is a warning signal that means, "Get out of here."
There are a number of reasons for the increased encounters, he said, including Utah's healthy bear population. He said the majority of bear reports this year involve younger animals out on their own after the sow kicks them out.
"They don't have any territory and they just follow their nose," Root said.
The agency set a trap in the Brighton area with food to lure the sow and her cub if they are still in the area.
"We are watching it very closely."
Root said there have not been any sightings since the Sunday encounter, leading him to hope they've left the area.
"I am hoping because there are so many people in that area they have decided it is too crowded and moved on," he said.
Wildlife biologist Riley Peck said bears also may be acting more aggressive when it comes to food because they went into hibernation last year a little leaner due to the extremely dry conditions. Their hibernation was likely prolonged due to the wet spring, so they're trying to pack on as many calories as possible.
The increased bear reports could be minimized, too, if people took the proper precautions to "bear proof" their surroundings, the agency said.
The division advises:
• In residential neighborhoods in the foothills or at cabins, store trash in a secure location or bear-proof container. If you don't have access to a bear safe garbage can, store your garbage can in the garage and put it out the morning of pickup, not the night before
• Clean the can periodically to remove odors
• If camping, store food, snacks and scented items (such as deodorant and toothpaste) in an area where a bear can’t get to them. Do not leave them out on tables or keep them in your tent. Storing them in a locked trailer or locking them in the trunk of your car are both good options.
The agency added people who live in bear-prone neighborhoods need to be aware that pet food bowls, BBQ grills, bird feeders, fruit trees and unsupervised pets left out at night all act as magnets for a hungry bear.
If people do encounter a bear, the agency said it is best to stand your ground and not play dead, retreat or run away. Bears can run 35 mph and are great at climbing trees.
When a bear stands up and grunts or sniffs, it is not acting aggressively. It's checking you out — getting a better smell. If the bear does attack, always fight back using whatever is in your grasp be it rocks, sticks, water bottles or even your hands and feet.
There is additional information on preventing bear encounters at the Wild Aware Utah website.