Black bears roam Washington forests — and occasionally backyards, too

Northwest Trek’s new Male Black Bear exploring for the first time his new enclosure at the park.
Northwest Trek’s new Male Black Bear exploring for the first time his new enclosure at the park. Courtesy

It’s bear season.

That is, it’s the time of year when bears make news by romping through backyards, peeking through windows or knocking over bird feeders.

It can be pretty scary when a black bear wanders through urban neighborhoods like the one in Lakewood where state Department of Fish & Wildlife officers captured and relocated a 250-pound bear on May 22.

Bears don’t seek the limelight. All they’re doing is looking for food. After spending the cold and rainy months in near hibernation, they’re desperate to recover between 25 percent and 40 percent of their active body weight, said Rich Beausoleil, the state’s bear and cougar specialist. “The name of the game is food and calories,” he said.

Bears go where their noses take them. Smell is their keenest sense. And they can range over more than 100 square miles. And sometimes, just like us, they get lost.

Normally, bears try to avoid people. But as the state’s human population has increased, bear habitat has been gobbled up by subdivisions. Consequently, bears often accidentally wander into cities on greenbelts, said Craig Bartlett, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. “They can go right under the freeway,” he said.

Bear sightings tend to multiply in late spring, when typical bear food sources can be scarce. Bears are omnivorous, and largely subsist on vegetation, but also go after bugs, grubs, fish and small mammals. In the wild, it’s not uncommon for them to peel the bark off trees to eat the insects or suck the sap. To get at insects, they may knock the tops off anthills or break open bee hives. To reach fruit or berries, they may break off tree limbs or crush shrubs.

Just to maintain its body weight, a typical bear must consume 3,000 calories daily, Beausoleil said. But to add pounds during spring, bears seek as many as 5,000. A typical bird feeder stocked with a pound of food offers 1,750 calories. The way Beausoleil looks at it, a bear that raids three or four suburban bird feeders in a row is simply trying to satisfy its hunger the fastest way it can. “It’s no different than you or I going through the drive-through on a busy day,” he said.

Trouble is, people often make it too easy for bears to pick up a habit that causes more than 90 percent of conflicts between people and bears. To prevent problems, it’s critical to avoid purposely feeding bears — state law puts the minimum fine at $170 — and to carefully manage potential lures, particularly in rural areas. Three of the most common are bird feeders, garbage and fruit trees. If you have trees, pick fruit as early as possible. Even the remains of last year’s harvest can attract bears.

If you camp or hike in bear country, don’t go solo. Keep small children close. Carry a whistle and blow it every now and then. Usually, that’s enough to keep bears from getting anywhere near you. If you see bears at a distance, clap your hands loudly once or twice. The sound is like a gunshot to bears, and they’ll most likely run off. It’s best to keep at least 100 yards away. This is particularly important if you encounter a female with cubs, because mother bears may aggressively protect their offspring. If confronted, face the bear, talk softly and back away slowly. Don’t try to run. Bears have been clocked as fast as 35 mph.

And since they’re always looking for a free meal, keep your camp’s food supplies stored safely in a special bear bag hung from a tree or in a bear-resistant container, which are sold at many camping supply stores and online.

You can observe black bears without worrying about disturbing them at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park north of Eatonville. The wildlife park’s bears, Benton and Fern, are a brother and sister, both 9.

They are quite active and dug their own den inside their forested habitat last fall. Visitors often spot them climbing trees or playing in their water-feature pool.

By the way, the name black bear is something of a misnomer. Colors vary. Most commonly, they are various shades of brown. Some are shaded cinnamon, or blond, or (rarely) white.

It’s worthwhile to compare and contrast black bears (Ursus americanus), common throughout forested areas of North America, with grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), which are rare in Washington.

Nearly eradicated by hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 50,000 grizzly bears once inhabited North America. Grizzly bears — listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — are now limited to about 2 percent of their historic range in the Lower 48 states. That area includes Washington’s North Cascades, where federal officials have proposed a restoration plan, now under review.

The Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, among others, have endorsed an incremental restoration plan to slowly release a small number of bears to remote parts of the North Cascades — public land nearly 10,000 square miles in area — over a period of years. That plan is under federal review.

For more information about living with bears, go to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife website.

The Northwest Trek Wildlife Park website invites visitors to its collection of animals native to the Pacific Northwest.