Bears and campers: Can't we just get along?

In May, with camping season around the corner, the folks at Northwest Trek offered living examples of how people and bears sometimes share the same space disagreeably. The advice is still valid heading into the final weeks of summer camping.

Experts such as agents with the state Department of Fish and Wildllife (WDFW) note that campers and hikers alike can and should avoid potentially unhappy encounters with black bears.

That was the same message conveyed May 20 at Northwest Trek during Bear Camp, an event in which visitors to the wildlife park near Eatonville could watch live demonstrations of how easily a strong animal with sharp claws can raid a campground. The stars were two black bears that live at Northwest Trek. They had their way with coolers and exposed food that were no match for the bears' pursuit of a tasty snack in the mock campsite.

Trek officials said they hoped it would be a valuable lesson in how to keep food safe and out of harm’s way, making camping safer for bears and humans alike.

In Washington, roughly 25,000 black bears live in forested habitats, from the coastal rainforests to the Cascades. They're also known to occasionally venture into open country, such as clearcuts.

Bears usually avoid people. Most encounters come are a surprise, at which point all bears should be given plenty of respect and room to retreat without feeling threatened, according to the WDFW.

Here's what the agency recommends to avoid black bears while camping or hiking:

• Keep a clean campsite. Put garbage in wildlife-resistant containers.

• Store food in double plastic bags in your vehicle, in bear-proof food lockers, or in a backpack hung at least 10 feet up in a tree and four feet out from the tree trunk. Never keep food in a tent.

• Sleep at least 100 yards from your cooking area and food storage site.

• Hike in small groups and make your presence known by singing or talking.

• Keep small children close and on trails.

What should you do if you still have a close encounter with a bear? WDFW has advice for that, too:

• Stay calm and avoid direct eye contact which could prompt the bear to charge. Try to stay upwind and identify yourself as a human by standing up, talking and waving your hands above your head.

• Don't approach the bear, particularly if cubs are present. Give the animal plenty of room.

• If you can't safely move away from the bear, and it doesn't leaave, try to scare it away by clapping your hands or yelling.

• If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively. As a last resort, protect yourself by curling into a ball or lying on the ground on your stomach and playing dead.

Wildlife agents respond to bear sightings when there is a threat to public safety or property. In such an emergency, call 9-1-1.

Bears are skilled scavengers that "take advantage of human irresponsibility" with food and garbage, WDFW officials said. They also noted bears "will eat anything that smells appealing and will help them prepare" for their winter hibernation.


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