By Tatum McConnell and Matt Hart
If you live near wild country almost anywhere on Earth, there’s a good chance you’ve had the following exhilarating experience, or at least imagined it vividly: You turn from whatever you’re doing, look out the window, and see the distinct brown or black shape of a bear on your property.
Here at Vital Ground, we love our furry neighbors, but we also know how crucial it is—for the bears and for us—that we do our best to avoid luring them near our homes.
Bears eat a huge variety of foods, from tiny termites and roots to elk and bison, and many things in between. They roam large areas in search of their next meal, and their expert noses can unfortunately lead them toward enticing human-related attractants.
For some unlucky bears, getting into too many human-derived foods—whether it’s birdseed, chicken feed or garbage—leaves them dependent on these easy-to-find meals. Wildlife biologists and managers often call this becoming food-conditioned. It’s a dangerous turn of events for humans, putting them in close proximity to bears, and wildlife managers sometimes make the tough call to kill food-conditioned bears if relocation attempts aren’t able to prevent them from seeking human-related attractants.
In the Northern Rockies, federally-protected grizzly bears are still recovering from a century of persecution, with some isolated sub-populations numbering less than 50 bears. Losing one of those bears because of food conditioning has a significant impact on the species’ overall recovery. Bear-proofing your home is important anywhere bears live, but that’s why it’s absolutely vital in grizzly country: you can keep yourself safe while also protecting sensitive grizzly bear populations.
The Basics of Bear-Proofing
The name of the game with bear-proofing is removing or containing any attractants on your property. Here are eight things that attract bears, and how to manage them.
Garbage is the number one attractant bears get into. A bear-proof garbage bin can prevent bears from accessing trash. Check out this video of a black bear trying to get into a bin—thanks to clips or a lock a bin will hold steady despite a bear’s best efforts. In many parts of the Northern Rockies, conservation groups (some of them Vital Ground partners, like our friends at Swan Valley Bear Resources profiled in the above video) offer discounted or loaner programs for bear-proof garbage bins, with measurable success.
Anything smelly can attract bears to your property. Always thoroughly clean a barbeque grill after use to limit the smell and store it in your garage or shed, not outdoors.
- Attractants in Cars
Bears have very powerful noses. They can smell food even through a car door and can wreak havoc when they do, from Yosemite to the Smokies. Make sure not to leave anything smelly in your car to prevent a food reward for the bear and damage to your vehicle. Another unexpected attractant is gasoline; make sure to keep any containers indoors.
- Pet Food
Pet food is chock full of meat and grains bears would love to get into. Store it inside and feed pets indoors—the last thing anyone wants is a bear learning when and where Fido enjoys his dinner!
Even seeds in a birdfeeder or sugar water in a hummingbird feeder can attract a bear. This is a tough one for bird lovers, but taking down feeders from spring through autumn will help keep you and bears safe. Even if they might look ridiculously cute and smart while doing it, bears raiding birdfeeders is bad for all parties involved.
- Fruit Trees and Berries
Promptly picking any ripe fruit or berries close to your home will prevent bears from seeking out that tasty snack on your property. You can also protect orchards with electric fencing.
If you have chickens, goats, pigs, bees, or other domestic livestock on your property, electric fencing is a surprisingly easy and cost-effective measure to keep your animals safe from bears. This video from Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks shows just how effective electric fencing or ground pads can be to stop bears from getting into human property. To learn more about installing electric fencing check out this page from the Get Bear Smart Society.
Farmers and ranchers in bear country might have to take additional precautions to keep livestock safe. Check out Bear Smart’s resources for that here.
Finally, a compost pile can be a major attractant for bears. Old banana peels and egg shells might not sound particularly appealing to us, but anything smelly can bring bears. Electric fencing can be used to prevent conflicts here as well.
When Bears Show Up
Even if you’ve properly bear-proofed your home and yard, past rewards or simple curiosity may still lead a bear there. When a bear comes onto your property, the best thing you can do for everyone is scare it away. While staying inside or near a door, shout, bang pots and pans, and generally make yourself seem big, loud and scary. Of course, if you encounter a bear away from the house while out and about on your property, make sure to follow bear safety guidelines. Whether at home or in the woods, showing bears that humans should be avoided will keep bears safe in the long run.
Vital Ground partners with organizations like Swan Valley Bear Resources and the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project that work to help landowners prevent bear conflicts. Many communities provide resources to rent or buy bear-proof garbage bins or get electric fencing installed for free or reduced prices. Bear Smart also has all kinds of resources for bear-proofing your home, so to learn more about any of the items listed, as well as others, check out their page here. Here’s to a happy bear safe summer!