OLYMPIA — Spring and the beginning of the outdoor recreation season can bring unexpected encounters with Washington’s wildlife.
This is the time of year when Washington’s black bears are especially active, now that they have emerged from their dens and are foraging for food.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proclaimed this week Washington Bear Awareness week, in observation of the need for residents to be mindful of ways to co-exist safely with bears and other wildlife.
“With Memorial Day weekend just ahead of us, we want remind outdoor recreation enthusiasts that they are sharing Washington’s great outdoors with native animals,” said Nate Pamplin, wildlife program director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Campers and picnickers — as well as people residing in rural and greenbelt areas — can follow some simple precautions to minimize the chance of a problem encounter.
One of the most important precautions to take is to secure food and garbage so they don’t become an attractant to bears, said Pamplin, citing a recent example of bears rifling through unsecured garbage in a Belfair neighborhood near Bremerton.
Black bears are known for their ability to find food at a distance with their keen sense of smell. Since they’re omnivores, anything from the hamburgers on the grill to roasted marshmallows at the campfire can attract them.
Squirrels, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, deer and many birds also can be drawn to unsecured food and garbage, Pamplin said. And smaller animals can attract larger and potentially more dangerous ones, such as cougars.
To reduce the chance of problem encounters with bears, cougars or other wildlife while recreating outdoors:
- Keep a clean camp. Clean grills and put garbage in wildlife-resistant trash containers where available.
- Store food in vehicles or in wildlife-resistant food lockers when possible. Otherwise, hang food in backpacks or other containers from a tree branch at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet out from the tree trunk. Never store food in tents.
- When camping, sleep at least 100 yards from the cooking area and food storage site.
- When fishing, clean fish away from camp or the picnic area and dispose of entrails properly.
- Hike in small groups and make noise by singing or talking. Keep small children close and on trails.
- Leave family pets at home or confine or restrain them in camp and on trails to avoid drawing wildlife.
- Do not approach dead animals, especially deer or elk that could have been cougar prey left for a later meal.
Direct encounters with bears are rare, but if such a situation occurs, here’s what to do:
- Stay calm and avoid direct eye contact, which could elicit a charge. Try to stay upwind and identify yourself as a human by standing up, talking and waving your hands above your head.
- Do not approach the bear, particularly if cubs are present. Give the bear plenty of room.
- If you cannot safely move away from the bear, and the animal does not flee, try to scare it away by clapping your hands or yelling.
- If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively. As a last resort, should the attack continue, protect yourself by curling into a ball or lying on the ground on your stomach and playing dead.
Encounters with cougars are even rarer, but if it happens:
- Stop and stand tall. Pick up small children. Don't run—a cougar's instinct is to chase.
- Try to appear larger than the cougar. Never take your eyes off the animal or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
- Do not approach the animal, especially if it is near a kill or with kittens.
- If the animal displays aggressive behavior, shout, wave your arms and throw rocks. The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey, but a potential danger.
- If the cougar attacks, fight back aggressively and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back.
WDFW officials respond to bear and cougar sightings if there is a threat to public safety or property. In emergencies, dial 911 for help.
For more details on avoiding problems with bears, cougars and other wildlife, see WDFW’s “Living with Wildlife” information at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/.