How to stay safe in bear country

How you can stay safe in bear country.

BOISE COUNTY -- Bears are making headlines in Idaho this summer, and there have been even more encounters in the last few weeks.

A popular campground in the Boise National Forest is closed because of black bears in the area, and in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, wildlife managers had to euthanize a black bear that was bothering campers.

MOREWildlife managers euthanize bear that bothered Idaho campers

While this isn't uncommon here in the Gem State, bear encounters do ramp up this time of year as bears try to gain weight for winter hibernation.

"It seems to be kind of a just a constant increasing trend, this isn't something new. But every year there seems to be a few more incidences that have occurred," Boise National Forest Lowman District Acting Ranger Michael Feiger said.

When you're up in the woods camping, hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding, there are several things you can do to avoid an encounter with a bear. Evin Oneale with Idaho Fish & Game says reducing the odors at your campground and not having food attractants really decreases the chances of you having a bear encounter.

If you are camping at a campground, do not be careless with your food or trash. Wild animals wandering near a campground are more likely to be habituated, meaning they are used to people and their food. These animals may become increasingly bold and can become aggressive, according to the expert site BeBearAware.org.

Wildlife managers and national forest officials advise you to protect yourself by keeping your campsite clean. Throw all your garbage away in wildlife-resistant trash containers, or in a dumpster far away from your sleeping area. 

Keep all food and cooking items inside a closed, hard-sided car or special bear-proof container (coolers, boxes, tents and soft-sided campers are not bear-proof). They also advise you do not sleep in the same clothes you cooked in and keep sleeping bags and tents free of odors.

"Hanging your food is a great idea, hanging the clothes that you cook in is another great idea," Oneale added.

He says put your deodorant, toothpaste and anything with a scent that a bear would investigate, in a bag and hang them on a designated bear hook or on a high tree: wildlife experts say in the backcountry, store food and odorous items by hanging them at least 10 to 15 feet above ground and four feet from the trunk.

"Bears are very, very smart," Oneale said. "Their whole life is food,. And they will try every mechanism to find something to eat."

Once bears find human food, they're more than likely to come back to that spot, which makes for a dangerous situation.

"There's more people going into the woods than there ever was before. There's more people living in bear country than ever before," Oneale added.

Officials had to close an area in the Boise National Forest around Bull Trout Lake off Highway 21 after reports of people encountering bears in campgrounds.

MOREPopular recreation area closed after bear encounters

"As soon as we get the offending bear removed and displaced to another location or Fish and Game makes a decision on how they're going to treat that particular incident, we will be opening that campground immediately," Feiger added.

Up in the Sawtooth National Recreation area, wildlife managers tell us there have been quite a few reported bear encounters this summer. Idaho Fish and Game trapped and euthanized a black bear in late July after it kept making contact with people camping near Ketchum.

"The bear apparently got a food reward, maybe more than once at that particular campground and once a bear gets a food reward, it's almost game over for them," Oneale said. 

These bears are what wildlife managers call "habituated" to human food and contact.

"Doesn't necessarily mean aggressive but it generally leads to that bear becoming more emboldened with every encounter," Oneale said. "What we are doing is treating the symptom or the final result. What we would like to treat is the cause: people. If we can keep people and bears separated and you're not allowing bears to get food rewards from humans, everybody will benefit."

 Once a bear is in the initial phases of making contact with humans, they try to trap the bear and put an identification tag or marker on the bear. Sometimes, Fish and Game can re-locate those bears and displace them far away from that area, but if they re-offend wildlife managers say it's the end for that bear.

"A fed bear is a dead bear," Feiger added.

If you do come in contact, Feiger says your first move is to avoid the bear. But don't run from it; wildlife experts say make noise (but don't scream), make yourself big, and back away slowly while keeping eye contact with the bear.

Always have bear spray handy and know how to use it.

"Any one of our campgrounds could potentially have an issue, I guess, because all of them are in bear country," Feiger added.

Officials say bears are just as interested in getting away from you as you are from them; they're not at the campground looking to eat you, Oneale says, they just want your food.

If you do get attacked by a black bear, Feiger says it's all about the fight: Defend yourself and be aggressive. That is usually enough for black bears to back off.

Tens to hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to flock up to bear country in Idaho to view the total solar eclipse on August 21. Forest service officials are on high alert - and say you should be, as well - because with more people, comes the possibility for more encounters with bears.

Other than the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the situation in the Boise National Forest, Feiger says there is a history of bear encounters in Lowman, Garden Valley, the Upper Middle Fork of the Boise River and Atlanta, Idaho.

There are grizzly bears in the Idaho Panhandle region, and east in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Area. Grizzly bears do not typically react the same way black bears do to aggression.

You can find many more bear aware camping advice and tips at BeBearAware.org.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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