Mountain & Trail News

    Arizona Campers Urged to Take Precautions to Help Keep Bears Wild

    The family of Arizona’s most recent bear attack victim is asking campers and outdoor recreationists to take precautions when camping outdoors in bear country. The male victim was attacked on June 24 while camping in the Ponderosa Campground east of Payson.

    While the investigation shows that the victim had taken the proper precautions to secure his food and garbage, Arizona Game and Fish Department officers believe that the bear responsible for the attack had already been habituated and conditioned to people and came to expect to find food or garbage in human-inhabited areas.

    The black bear, which is the only bear species found in Arizona, is considered the least aggressive of North America’s bears. Black bears are normally shy, bashful animals that seek solitude in densely vegetated areas. Although the black bear population in the state is estimated to be near 3,000 animals, bears are rarely seen and when they are spotted, they typically run from humans.

    That typical bear behavior though can be altered by the influences of humans, and those bears can become dangerous and problematic. Bears that become accustomed to and unafraid of traffic, noise and human activity, and particularly those that begin to associate people with food sources, are more likely to become involved in a human-wildlife conflict. A bear that enters a campground has already demonstrated habituation, and even a small bear can overpower an adult.

    “Game and Fish is asking the public to do their part to keep bears wild and afraid of humans by not being complacent with food sources and garbage bins in areas where bears are known to live,” said Brian Wakeling, game branch chief and a wildlife biologist with extensive experience with black bears. “The latest attack victim appeared to take the appropriate precautions, but this bear had already become used to people and expected to find a food source in human-occupied areas.”

    Arizona Game and Fish uses a protocol to determine when a bear has become a public safety threat and must be removed. The protocol uses criteria such as the bear’s history of human encounters, age and sex. Depending on those factors, some bears can be trapped and relocated, but those deemed a public safety threat must be destroyed. Studies strongly indicate that male bears are the most likely to be responsible for unprovoked predatory attacks on people. Females tend to be more timid with smaller territories than males.

    “We ask all residents and visitors to Arizona to take personal responsibility to not only protect yourself and your family, but to help minimize the chances that human behavior could change a bear and create a future public safety threat,” said Wakeling. “Bears can weigh in excess of 300 pounds and because they are such large, powerful predators, the department must have little tolerance for bears that enter urban areas, raid garbage or frequent recreation areas.”

    The area north of Mount Ord and the area surrounding Payson provide some of the best habitat in the state and has one of the highest densities of black bears. Bear attacks are rare with only 10 documented attacks in Arizona since 1990, although three have occurred in the past month.

    Game and Fish reminds outdoor recreationists that these recent bear incidents are localized, and that if they take steps to be “bear aware,” it is still safe to enjoy the outdoors.

    Drought conditions are likely a reason more wildlife, including bears, are coming into campgrounds and urban areas in search of food. People are reminded to take these immediate steps to minimize bear encounters:

    • Keep a clean camp. Store food items and trash away from your tent or sleeping area.
    • Wash up before going to bed to eliminate odors.
    • In residential areas in bear country, keep food waste in a secure location such as a garage, shed or bear-proof container.
    • Residents should put trash out the morning of collection (never the night before) and clean your trash container regularly.
    • Hang bird feeders at least 10 feet above ground and away from structures. Use a tray to catch spills. Remove bird feeders if a bear is in the area.
    • Be aware of your surroundings. If you hear of a bear in your area or see a yellow Game and Fish sign that says “Advisory – Bear Frequenting Area,” take all necessary precautions to prevent attracting it, including securing all trash, bird and squirrel feeders, and any other potential food attractant.

    Other potential food attractants include pet food, uncleaned BBQs, and even orchard fruit on the ground. The food odors attract bears that have a very keen sense of smell. Even an empty food wrapper can attract a bear from a long distance.

    If you do encounter a bear, try to scare the bear away by making yourself look as large as possible, making loud noises and throwing objects towards it. Do not run. In the rare event of a black bear attack, fight back aggressively.

    For more information or questions on living with bears, visit the department’s website at www.azgfd.gov/urbanwildlife.

    Logo courtesy of the Arizona Game and Fish Department

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