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Utah’s drought might bring out the bears… Here’s how to protect yourself

Signs are being placed to remind Utahns to store their food and keep their campsites clean. Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

SALT LAKE CITY– There’s a strong possibility Utah’s drought will bring out bears more than normal this year. With the majority of Utah’s snowpack 50-60%  below original levels and 90% of a bear’s diet relying on root-like vegetation, food may be hard for a bear to come by. 

The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is warning the public: the likelihood of bear conflicts increases during a drought year due to the lack of a normal food source available, causing the animal to go hunting for sustenance in unexpected places. 

 “We are already getting reports in some areas of the state where bears are getting into people’s garbage scavenging for food. 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,” Darren DeBloois, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources game mammals coordinator, warned in a statement Monday. 

The catch is, bears don’t care what they eat… as long as they do. Unpleasant interactions tend to occur when a bear sniffs out food a human is eating and cooking in their natural habitat and sometimes elsewhere.  

“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,” DeBloois said. 

In other words–stay alert know how to protect yourself from the hungry bear. 

Tip #1: Bear-proof food, supplies and trash cans 

The first piece of advice from the DWR is pretty simple. Don’t leave food and personal belongings out in the open or in a tent, especially scented items like toothpaste and deodorant. A hungry bear will ravage a tent if it smells something it can eat. Instead, DWR recommends storing scented items in a trailer or car. 

As black bears creep into campsites and neighborhoods looking for food, having a bear-proof trash can will lower the chance of an encounter. Make sure garbage cans are in a secure place, like the garage.

DWR also advises taking your trash to the curb on the morning it will be picked up instead of bringing it out the night before. And don’t forget to clean your trash cans regularly! For sanitary and avoiding black bears alike. 

The good news is a black bear won’t stick around for long if it can’t get its hands on a snack. 

Tip #2: Clean up after yourself 

It’s a lesson your parents drilled to your noggin’: clean up after yourself. That lesson could save you an encounter with a black bear. When camping or grilling on the deck, make sure to properly dispose of trash and scraps. After eating, wipe down tables and cooking supplies thoroughly, leaving as little of a trace as possible. 

If cooking with oil or grease, never dump it out on the ground. Instead, pour the substance into an airtight container. 

Additionally, ensuring a clean campsite after you’ve left the area will also protect those who use the spot later.

“If a bear visits the area after you leave and then someone comes into that area to camp, you’ve created a potentially dangerous situation,” DeBloois said.

Tip #3: Don’t feed the bear 

You will not make friends with the bear if you solve its hunger problem by feeding it. Bears are not friendly–they are predators. They will hurt you. And if a bear does hurt you, DWR officers will be forced to euthanize the animal as a matter of public safety.

“We enjoy managing and protecting animals so Utahns can get outdoors and enjoy them. Having to euthanize an animal — because someone didn’t do something as simple as keeping their campsite clean and storing food in a secure area — is tough. Please don’t put us in that situation,” said DeBloois. 

Tip #4: Remove items that attract bears

There have already been bear sitings around the state, and considering Utah is black bear country, more are bound to happen. This is even more true for foothill and mountainous residents. 

DWR says it’s important to properly secure or clean yard items that may attract a bear.

Some of these include:

  • Birdfeeders (both seed and hummingbird)
  • Fruit trees
  • Compost piles 
  • Beehives 
  • Pet food and water bowls 
  • Unsupervised outdoor pets (especially at night) 
  • Barbecue grills 

Tip #5: Know what to do if you encounter a bear

In the unfortunate event you do come in close contact with a bear–knowing what to do could be a matter of life and death. 

DWR states the following in protecting yourself against a bear: 

  • Stand your ground: Never back up, lie down or play dead. Stay calm and give the bear a chance to leave. Prepare to use your bear spray or another deterrent.
  • Don’t run away or climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers and can run up to 35 mph — you cannot outclimb or outrun them.
  • Know bear behavior. If a bear stands up, grunts, moans or makes other sounds, it’s not being aggressive. These are the ways a bear gets a better look or smell and expresses its interest.
  • If a black bear attacks, always fight back. And never give up! People have successfully defended themselves with almost anything: rocks, sticks, backpacks, water bottles and even their hands and feet.

For additional tips on staying safe around black bears, visit the DWR website and the Wild Aware Utah website.  A bear safety video is also available on the DWR YouTube channel.