SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s black bears typically begin to hibernate about this time of the year; however, state wildlife officials continue to emphasize safety amid a dramatic spike in bear sightings compared to 2018.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials say they received 53 reports of bear sightings in 2019, which was close to double of the 27 reported in 2018. Both numbers are significantly less than the 84 reports in 2017, according to DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley. The division didn’t provide numbers for years before 2017.
The most frequent sightings in 2019 were between Salt Lake and Juab counties, in Grand County and the north end of Zion National Park, officials said Monday. Many of the sightings involved bears getting into food left in campgrounds or getting into garbage left out in neighborhoods, the division added.
There were also some newsworthy incidents involving bears. Of sightings reported this year:
- Two involved campers in sites at Hobble Creek Canyon and along the Colorado River in Grand County receiving superficial or minor wounds. The bears in both cases were later located and euthanized.
- Wildlife biologists also warned hikers after bears were spotted nearMillcreek Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon.
- In September, a bear sighting led to traffic delays in Orem before the bear was later captured and relocated.
So why were there so many bear sightings this year compared to 2018?
One possible reason is there has been an increased number of black bears in the state, according to DWR game mammals coordinator Darren Debloois. For example, St. George News reported in 2018 that the minimum adult bear population in Utah rose from less than 1,500 in 2000 to nearly 3,500 in 2016.
Weather and more people heading out into the wild could also be factors, DWR wildlife biologist Riley Peck told KSL.com when the division opened an exhibit related to bear safety at the Utah State Fair in September. Those factors could also possibly explain why 2017 and 2019 resulted in more sightings than in 2018.
Utah received above-average precipitation in 2017 and 2019, while it was dryer in 2018.
"Back in 2018, we had a drought — a dryer year. When we went into winter, they might have been a little leaner, a little bit less fat than they should be," Peck said. "We had a longer, little bit cooler winter with a little more moisture which kept them in the den a little bit longer, maybe kept them a little bit lower on the mountain a little bit longer. That increases the likelihood that people and bears would go into the same locations.
"We had such a long and moister and maybe cooler winter that you get bears that inhabit areas where people do sooner and longer in the year while they’re looking for food," he added.
While the number of reported sightings is expected to drop off during the normal hibernation period that begins between late October and mid-November, state wildlife officials are reminding Utahns to keep food and other scents away from bears.
"One of the most effective ways to reduce conflicts with bears is to deny them a food source. This can include a wide range of things like bird feeders (especially hummingbird feeders), pet food, unsecured garbage and coolers to things that aren’t food, but might smell like a food source to a bear, like toothpaste and deodorant," DeBloois said, in a statement. "Whether you are camping or whether you live in a mountain or canyon area, you should always make sure to keep your food and garbage secure to keep you and the bears safe from harm."
A list of safety tips regarding black bears in Utah can be found here.