SALT LAKE CITY — Wildlife experts are urging for people to know their bear safety before they head out into the Utah wilderness this spring and summer because the lingering drought across the state could lead to more aggressive bear encounters.
Officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources advise that "conflicts" with bears normally increase during drought years due to a drought's impact on a bear's food supply.
Darren DeBloois, the game mammals coordinator for the division, explained that Utah's below-average snowpack this winter mixed with earlier warmer weather led to bears ending their hibernation schedules earlier this year. He added that plants and other vegetation make up about 90% of a black bears' diet; however, that type of food supply suffers during drought years.
And drought conditions are quite awful this year. What makes the situation even worse is it's not really a localized problem. More than half of the state remains in an "exceptional" drought, 90% of the state is in a "severe" drought and the entire state is in at least a "moderate" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The meteorological summer months — June, July and August — are now on the horizon. Those are typically the driest months of the year for Utah, so the conditions aren't believed to let up soon.
More than half of the entire West region, which are the 11 most western states in the country, is also in at least "severe" drought situation. Only 15% of all of the West is considered either "abnormally dry" or experiencing no drought conditions whatsoever, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
All of these conditions combined are why state biologists believe bears may start to be more aggressive as they look for alternative food sources this year. There's no easier food source made available to bears than food brought into their habitats by people camping and recreating — or left out by people residing in foothills and canyons.
"We are already getting reports in some areas of the state where bears are getting into people's garbage scavenging for food," DeBloois said in a statement Monday. "Bears could be more aggressive this year than normal as they try to obtain food, so we really want people to be aware and do all they can to eliminate food sources and not draw a bear to their area."
Black bears generally don't pose many problems for people recreating. DeBloois pointed out that black bears will even "do everything" to avoid human interaction in most instances.
However, that can quickly change if they sense a possibility for food.
"Once it finds food, a bear will often become aggressive toward anything it perceives as threatening the area where it found the food — that includes people," he said.
There are ways to prevent any encounters. The division advised that with the increased possibility for encounters and "conflicts" that it's even more important this year to know bear safety protocol. Their tips include:
- "Bear-proof" all supplies and trash: Store all food, snacks and scented items (including toothpaste and deodorant in a place where a bear can't get to it. Options include storing items in a locked trailer or even in the trunk of a car if you're camping. For residents in foothills and canyons, store all trash in bear-proof containers.
- Keep it clean: Cleaning areas where food is prepared, cooks or consumed is important in reducing the possibility that a bear will be lured in by the scent. This includes thoroughly cleaning utensils and picnic tables, and ensuring your cabin or campsite doesn't have food scraps lying around. All oil or grease should be put into a container to take home and not dumped onto the ground.
- Don't feed bears: Once people feed bears, a bear loses its "fear of people" and that makes it a problem for both the bear and the general public. That's why the division euthanizes bears and other predators that have lost this sense.
- Remove items that could attract a bear to your home: More on the residential side of the spectrum, the division recommends that people who live in areas of the foothills or mountainous parts of the state remove items that could attract bears in. These include seed and hummingbird birdfeeders, fruit trees, compost piles, beehives, pet food and water bowls, barbecue grills and even unsupervised pets left outdoors.
In the case that you encounter a bear, the division advises people to stand their ground and not lie down, play dead, run away or climb a tree. Instead, give a bear time to leave. Officials said a bear will stand up and grunt at times to get a "better look" or smell something it's interested in but that's not it being aggressive.
If a black bear attacks, officials added it's important to fight back. They said rocks, sticks, backpacks, water bottles, hands and feet have been used to defend against black bear attacks. Bear spray and bear horns are among the defense items that are good to have in preparation.
More tips about bear safety in Utah can be found here.
Meanwhile, bears aren't the only wildlife species impacted by Utah's drought. The division has, in recent months, also explained how Utah's drought have impacted other wildlife. For instance, declines in the agency's overall deer population estimate were mostly attributed to drought conditions.
State biologists have also pleaded to anglers to release any fish in the deepest possible area of a stream, river, lake or reservoir after being caught. They added that there could be fewer stocking of fish in certain Utah waterbodies this year due to warmer and shallower waters, which decrease the possibility for a fish to survive in that habitat.
It goes to show that the drought has a major impact beyond humans.