West Virginia bears begin leaving their dens around mid-March. They emerge hungry and looking for food. People who feed them by accident or design put themselves, their property and especially the bears at risk.
Deliberately feeding black bears is illegal. More commonly, people attract and feed bears through carelessness or a lack of knowledge.
"Bear movements are tied to food sources," said Colin Carpenter, black bear project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR). "Bears that roam around residential areas in search of food are less likely to stay if they do not find anything to eat. The key to avoiding human-bear conflicts is to remove or secure food attractants before a bear finds them."
To remove the temptation:
• Never intentionally feed bears. It is illegal. Feeding teaches bears to approach people or homes to search for more.
• Secure food and garbage. Businesses can use bear-resistant Dumpsters and residents use bear-resistant trash bins. The containers must be metal, as the powerful bruins can shred rubber or plastic bins. Locks or push-to-open systems keep containers securely closed. Some waste disposal services may offer bear-resistant containers. If not, before buying your own, confirm with your waste collection provider that they will service it.
• Do not leave birdseed, pet food or livestock fodder outside. Birdseed and other commercial animal feed are high-energy food sources. Store the bird feeder until the bear's natural diet of nuts, berries, sedges and insects are more abundant. Store feed in bear-resistant structures.
Several conditions converge with the end of hibernation to make the bears' hunt for food more urgent.
"Natural food sources are at their lowest point when bears leave their dens in the spring," Carpenter said. "High-energy foods such as serviceberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries do not become available until later in the summer."
Black bear breeding season peaks from mid-June through July. Male bears will cover large areas while searching for mates. At this same time, the adult female bears will chase off their yearlings so that they may breed again.
"All bears, but especially yearlings that are on their own for the first time, will take advantage of easy food sources," said Carpenter. "If people do not present bears with easy-to-get food, the bears will continue on their way naturally."
The unintentional feeding of black bears is something that people can prevent with simple changes in behavior.
"Garbage should be secured in a bear-proof facility and placed out for collection on the morning of pickup, not the night before," Carpenter said. "Bears are smart enough to notice the pattern if a banquet of food in plastic trash bins appear on the curb every Sunday night for Monday pickup."
Limit food odor by sealing scraps in plastic bags before placing them in the trash. Avoid adding meat, fish, dairy products, oil, unrinsed egg shells, cooked food or large amounts of fruit to compost piles.
The "easy pickings" of unsecured foods entice bears to overcome their natural fear of humans and raid again. That is typically when WVDNR receives complaints about nuisance bears.
The situation often proves fatal for the bear.
The state's urban black bear study found that bears were living in and around major urban centers in West Virginia.
"We radio-collared black bears in and around the cities of Beckley, Charleston and Morgantown," Carpenter said in a press release, "and found that these bears are resident animals that spend most of their time within 3 miles of city limits."
The ready access to human garbage, pet and animal feeders puts the bears at risk. That makes it essential that people properly secure foodstuffs to avoid attracting bears. Failing to remove food attractants until the bear has become a nuisance will likely lead to the destruction of the bear.
"Capturing and moving bears that have become accustomed to humans is a costly and often ineffective way of addressing the problem, especially when faced with the possibility of merely moving a problem bear from one area to another," said Carpenter. "Bears are now found in areas where they have been absent for decades and have been reported in all 55 counties. That is why wildlife agencies around the country tell people that 'a fed bear is a dead bear.'"
WVDNR worked with other member states of the Southeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop a website dedicated to educating people about how to live with black bears. To learn more, visit www.bearwise.org. The secure food section includes a true/false quiz to test your knowledge of what is — and is not — bear-resistant.
Social media hashtags include #wvdnr, #wvhunt, #wvfish and #wvstateparks.