As winter fades into spring, Gig Harbor’s human residents aren’t the only locals taking advantage of the warmer temperatures.
The local wildlife is also emerging to explore and eat, alongside people and pets around Gig Harbor.
Black bears are the specific concern to Sgt. Ted Jackson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Program.
“I’ve just got a feeling that it’s going to be a higher than usual bear calls in the West Pierce County area,” Jackson said. “It just seems like our bear encounters in cities has been going up in the last couple years and I just want people to be cautious when they’re out walking their dogs.”
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In previous years, Jackson’s department has trapped and re-homed an average of five to six bears from the Gig Harbor area, but not that many bears were trapped last year, though the bear sighting reports did not decrease.
Typical bear reports come from areas that have a lot of people around, such as residential areas or schools.
A recent bear sighting at Voyager Elementary near Kopachuck State Park prompted a cautionary letter from the Peninsula School District for parents and students to be aware of wildlife.
Katja Rimmele, principal of Voyager, said that this is probably the third bear sighting of the school year, but she isn’t worried.
“Typically it’s parents or neighbors reporting,” she said. “We don’t have a set procedure, it really depends on where the bear was seen and which direction it was heading. We also believe that the noise the kids would generate on the playground would deter a bear.”
While bears don’t tend to stick around the school, Rimmele said staff members do perform perimeter checks and have entered modified lockdown in past instances, limiting students to the indoors of the building with escorts outside, if they feel it’s necessary to insure student safety.
“It’s not a big problem, but it happens,” she said. “People know what to do and what to expect (and) the bear sightings are typically not very exciting ... I would imagine that a bear would not come close to the noise level we generate here.”
Bears tend to be spotted around residential areas because they’ve identified an easy source for food, Jackson said.
“As long as there’s a food source there, the bears will stick around,” he said. “Bears will kind of have a buffet-style circuit between houses.”
The favorite food for black bears is birdseed — easy for the animals to find and reach in bird feeders — since a pound will provide about half the bears’ daily calories.
Garbage is another food source for bears, who will rip apart garbage cans along with the bird feeders if they smell food.
“All they’re trying to do is fatten themselves up,” Jackson said. “If we remove the food source the bear will move on.”
Homeowners who have seen or suspect a bear is nearby should contain their garbage and take down bird feeders to remove any food source or temptation for bears to linger. Aside from destroyed bird feeders and torn apart garbage cans, the signs of a nearby bear are typically evident in the family dog.
“Dogs and bears are mortal enemies,” Jackson said. He added that a dog will continue to bark and act aggressively if a bear is nearby, but will typically hide and refuse to go outside if a cougar is around.
Jackson asked that bear sightings be reported either to 911 or the Washington State Patrol, to help officers track the bears and location sightings.
If a bear is spotted or encountered on a walk or hike, Jackson advises people to stay calm and make some noise to frighten the bear away.
“Distance is your friend. Get as much distance as you can, (but) don’t run,” he said. “The biggest thing is be aware. Bears don’t really want to be around us so they’ll try and go somewhere quiet.”
Jackson also recommends whistles as a good noisemaker to deter bears and also recommends bear spray, which he personally vouches for in deterring bears.
Bears are typically active through spring until September and tend to be more active during the morning and evening, especially if it’s hot.
“The new population that moves into Gig Harbor needs to understand that we do have bears in the area,” Jackson said. “People just need to be aware that we have bears and this is the time of year that they’re going to be active.”