What Do You Do Now ?
Black Bear Awareness, Inc
P.O. Box 156, Trufant, MI 49347

Most residents and visitors welcome the chance to glimpse the "black ghost" of the forest. Sometimes bears are attracted to areas used by people, becoming unwelcome visitors. Many people do not realize that by simply altering their behavior they can minimize the chance of unwanted close encounters with bears.

Black bears are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Bears primarily eat vegetation, supplementing their diet of greens, berries and nuts with an occasional meal of carrion, insects, or any mammal they can catch. Although they are large and powerful animals (adult males can weigh 250-500 pounds or more, females weigh 125-200 pounds), black bears are not normally aggressive toward man.

With increasing numbers of people living in and visiting woodlands, bears and people are increasingly bumping into one another. Here are some common circumstances where you might encounter bears&emdash;and some tips on how best to peaceably share the woods with them.

Bears Around Homes and Camps
If your home or camp is in a rural area that is near forestland, chances are good that you have bears for neighbors. How well you get along with these somewhat gluttonous neighbors depends on you. Is your residence free of food odors that may attract a hungry bear's attention? Garbage, bird food, pet food and outdoor grills are the most common bear invitations.

Garbage odors can be reduced by storing garbage in the garage or basement until trash day and by frequently disinfecting trash containers. Odors can be further reduced by rinsing meat packages before putting them in the trash. Freezing or refrigerating meat scraps, grease, or other refuse with strong odors is an excellent way to store until trash day. Don't leave garbage roadside overnight; wait until the morning of pickup day before placing it out for collection. A rag soaked with ammonia and placed in the garbage can may discourage a repeat visitor. Nothing with a strong food odor should be composted in the back yard.

The odors from an outdoor grill can be attractive to bears. To prevent bear problems, you should burn off as much of the meat and grease as possible and then brush or scrape grills clean. Grills should be stored in a closed garage or shed.

If you feed birds during the summer, put out small quantities of seed at more frequent intervals to reduce the attraction to a hungry bear. If a bear should discover your feeder, either discontinue feeding until it leaves or hang your feeder so it is more difficult to reach.

Dumpster Bears
Today, once leftover food leaves the home, camp, or restaurant table, it invariably ends up in a dumpster. Dumpsters with heavy metal lids that latch shut are available and should be used to discourage hungry bears. However, lids and doors that are left open, unlatched, or are made of light material, will not deny access to hungry bears.

Therefore, the cooperation of everyone using the dumpster is necessary to keep it closed and effective. Bear-proof dumpsters with self closing doors, similar to curbside mail boxes, are used successfully in many national parks.

Camping in Bear Country
The cleanliness of your campsite will largely determine your relationship with bears in the back country. If you arrive at a campsite with bear tracks, droppings, or garbage scattered around the site, try to find another campsite. These are sure signs that bears have made the connection between campers and food.

Food and other items with an odor, including candy, toothpaste, suntan lotion, and soap, should be stored in sealed containers. If you are camping near your vehicle, store the containers inside until you are ready to use them. Away from more secure storage facilities, food should be suspended in a "bear bag" that is at least 12 feet above the ground and 10 feet from the nearest tree trunk. Never store food or candy in your tent or sleeping quarters.

After meals, you should store all wanted leftovers and then wash dishes immediately. Dump the dishwater away from camp or use a sump hole to filter the water, and then burn the food scraps. In addition, burn all leftover food, wrappers, and grease. Do not bury them or throw them in the latrine!

Thoroughly wash and pack out any cans or bottles. If your clothes have food or grease on them, do not bring them into the tent with you.

Encountering Bears
Black bears should be respected but not feared. Most are timid enough to be scared away by yelling, waving, or banging pots or cans. If this does not work, chasing the bear out of your campsite before he settles in to consume your food may save your vacation. Be sure the bear has a clear escape route and then yell, wave, and rush toward the bear, but no closer than 15 feet. This tactic is especially effective when several people cooperate. Females with cubs may be more nervous than other bears and should be treated cautiously.

Capsaicin, sprayed in the eyes, has been used effectively to repel bears that are reluctant to leave or who approach too closely. Capsaicin is derived from cayenne peppers and has long been used by mailmen to repel aggressive dogs. In more than 200 trials, no bear indicated any sign of aggression after being sprayed, sometimes repeatedly. Most immediately turned and ran, stopping eventually to rub their eyes. There is no lasting injury to the animal.

Feeding Bears
People should not feed bears any food that could be associated with humans. Bears that have been fed this type of food lose their fear of humans and become dangerous and destructive. A bear that is breaking into camps and vehicles to obtain food, and no longer has any fear of humans, must be killed. The often repeated phrase, "If you love the animals, don't feed them," is especially true with strong, potentially dangerous bears.

Physical Characteristics
Black bears are large, elusive mammals. Their heads are small relative to their massive bodies. Black bears walk on four powerful limbs, but can also appear quite human-like when they stand on their hind legs. Black bears are curious and intelligent. An excellent sense of smell and a keen sense of hearing alert the black bear to potential food sources and danger. Black bears can run up to 35 miles per hour, climb trees, and are powerful swimmers. The majority of their day is spent foraging .

Black bears are opportunistic feeders. Their natural diet consists of vegetation, berries, nuts, insects, an occasional deer fawn, and carcasses. Bears will take advantage of human foods and garbage, returning to feed on these items regularly if left accessible. An insatiable appetite helps the black bear achieve its size which, for an adult female, ranges in weight from 150-250 pounds and from 200 to more than 600 pounds for an adult male.

Their presence may be intimidating to some people, but the black bear has a natural fear of humans and will most likely run away from an encounter. The black bear is quite shy and is rarely seen, even with other bears, except as a family unit of mother and offspring.

Range and Habitat
The American black bear is the only bear species found in Michigan. There are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 black bear living in the forested areas of the state. By far, most of the bears are found throughout the Upper Peninsula, but about 1,500 bears are found in the northern Lower Peninsula.

The northern lands of Michigan are an ideal habitat for black bears, providing a variety of upland ridges and lowland vegetation types. Black bears can be found where both food and cover are available. Preferred black bear habitat includes hardwood forest components (maple, beech and oak), cedar swamps, and wetland areas. Black bears require vast tracks of land to provide all their habitat needs. Some male bears use ranges up to 80 square miles.

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Photo: Bear in my Back Yard, Spread Eagle, Wisconsin by Char