It ran by my house! It got into my trash last night! I saw it in my neighbor's yard! The stories are similar and they always end with a question, "What can I do about it?" The "it" we are talking about is the intelligent, strong, and almost always hungry black bear. Every summer the Arizona Game and Fish Department receives phone calls from residents who are concerned about bears visiting their property.
How can urban dwellers in bear country protect their homes and families from such encounters? In 1994 the Department funded a study to answer this question. The town of Pinetop-Lakeside received a grant from the Urban Wildlife component of the Department's Heritage Fund to gather hard data on bear activity in urban settings. They wanted to find out which items in people's yards actually attract bears and the most effective methods that people can use to keep bears away. The town contracted with well-known bear biologist Al Le Count to conduct the study. The advanced biology students from Corona del Sol High School provided research assistance.
The researchers distributed 1,000 questionnaires to residents in an area of Pinetop that lies on the fringes of open pine forest. The Department selected the area for the study because of past reports of bear visits. Residents answered questions about the extent of bear problems in their vicinity and about their feelings regarding bears in their neighborhood. The researchers also evaluated each homesite for potential bear attractants.
Almost 50 percent of the households completed and returned the questionnaires. Half of those who responded (248 households) said that they had seen a bear on their own property. Most of these people said that the visits had occurred during the previous two years. Almost all of the respondents liked the idea of having bears in the nearby forest. On the other hand, slightly more than half said they did not mind having bears in their neighborhood. Their neighbors who are not of a like mind would probably be surprised to hear that. The responses were split over what to do about bears in the area. Just over half of the people wanted the bears left alone, while just under half said that if a bear were on their property they would want it to be removed and relocated. No one wanted visiting bears to be destroyed.
These study results show that in communities in bear country, residents may have conflicting views about bears. To find a solution, neighbors need to get together and agree on a strategy for keeping bears out of the neighborhood.
The researchers conducted interviews with residents who had experienced "significant" visits from bears (e.g., bears getting into garbage cans, storage sheds, and/or bird feeders), and with their nearest neighbors who had not reported visits. They wanted to find out what attracted bears and the best methods for keeping bears away. Leaving garbage out proved to be the most alluring invitation to bears. The researchers found that residents who left their garbage outside had a 68 percent chance of a bear visit. Residents who lived on the edge of a housing development or next to a thick wooded area within the development, and left their garbage out, had a 70 percent chance of a visit. Conversely, residents who kept their garbage inside until the morning of pickup reduced their chances of a bear visit significantly. In fact, this one precaution reduced the potential for a bear visit to 2 percent.
After conducting the interviews, the researchers came up with a list of do's and don'ts for people who live in bear country. Following these recommendations will discourage bear visits that put both humans and bears at risk.
Never leave your garbage out overnight. Store it inside the garage or locked in a shed until the day of collection.
Keep your pet food inside. The interviews indicated that pet food may not directly attract bears, but if a bear is in your neighborhood eating garbage, it might stop by for a snack of dog chow.
Hang your bird feeders on a wire between two trees at least eight feet above the ground so a bear can't reach them. Never hang your bird feeder on the porch.
Keep barbecues clean and pick fruits and vegetables as they ripen. These items could attract many kinds of animals. Bears have been seen eating from fruit trees in some Arizona neighborhoods. If you remove the attractant, you are removing a potential problem.
Most fences do not stop bears, so do not count on a fence to keep a bear from your garbage. Residents reported that barking dogs and motion-sensitive lights do not deter bears either.
According to Sue Sitko, the Department's information and education program manager for the Pinetop Region, "This study gave credence to what wildlife biologists have always thought about bear visits. Keeping your garbage in until the morning of pickup is the key."
Be a good neighbor by keeping the area around your home free of bear attractants. If you are careless and leave out garbage or food for bears, someone could get hurt. That person will suffer, and the bear will be destroyed. No one wants that to happen. Remember, to change the behavior of bears, we must first change our own.