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SEPTEMBER  02, 2003

HARRISBURG - With fall a few weeks away, many Pennsylvanians will be spending increasing amounts of time outdoors. This also is when black bears become more active, setting the stage for an increase in bear sightings and possibly encounters.

Mark Ternent, Pennsylvania Game Commission black bear biologist, noted that bears have started consuming massive quantities of food to prepare for the upcoming denning season, which begins in mid- to late-November. This is when some bears may inadvertently end up in more populated areas as they search for food.

Ternent offered suggestions on how to reduce the likelihood that your property will attract bruins and how to best react when a bear is encountered.

"Bear activity increases during the fall because they're foraging to consume as many calories as possible from any source they can find in preparation for denning," Ternent said. "As a result, sightings of bears increase.

"While Pennsylvania bears are mostly timid animals that would sooner run than confront people, residents should know a few things about how to react if they encounter a bear, or better yet, how to avoid an encounter altogether by reducing the likelihood of attracting bears to your camp or residence."

Ternent stressed there are no known records of a Pennsylvania black bear killing a human, and there have been fewer than 15 reported injuries resulting from black bear encounters during the past 25 years in the state. However, recent deaths caused by black bears in New York (2002), New Mexico (2001) and Tennessee (2000) have given the Game Commission reason to be concerned. Pennsylvania's bear population currently is estimated at 15,000 animals. Cases of habituated bears becoming increasingly bold because some Pennsylvanians are failing to keep food away from bears are equally troubling.

"Pennsylvanians need to understand that when bears become habituated to their homes or communities, it can lead to conflicts and possibly serious injury," Ternent said. "Feeding wildlife, whether the activity is intended for birds or deer, can draw bears into a certain area. Once bears become habituated to an area where they find food, they will continue to return, which is when the bear can become a real problem for homeowners and neighbors.

"Even more disturbing are the reports we continue to receive about people attempting to hand feed bears or lure bears onto a porch or deck with food for better viewing or photographing. These situations can cause bears to become more aggressive, even break into homes, which has occurred in Pennsylvania. No one should be encouraging bears to behave in this manner; bears are wild animals, not pets!"

"Ideally, we want bears to pass by residential areas without finding a food reward that would cause them to return and become a problem," Ternent said. "Capturing and moving bears that have become habituated to humans is costly and sometimes ineffective, especially when faced with the reality that moving a bear behaving badly often only moves the problem, and sometimes only temporarily. That is why wildlife agencies tell people that a 'fed bear is a dead bear.'"

Ternent listed five suggestions that could prevent attracting bears to a property:

Play it smart. Do not feed wildlife. Food placed outside for wildlife, such as corn for squirrels, may attract bears. Reconsider putting squash, pumpkins, corn stalks or other Halloween or holiday decorations outside that also may attract bears. Even bird feeders can become "bear magnets." Audubon Pennsylvania offered tips for how to safely feed birds for those in prime bear areas, including: restrict feeding season to when bears den, which is primarily from late November through late March; avoid foods that are particularly attractive for bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet; bring feeders inside at night; or suspend feeders from high crosswires.

Keep it clean. Don't put out garbage until pick-up day; don't throw table scraps out back for animals to eat; don't add fruit or vegetable wastes to your compost pile; and clean your barbecue grill regularly. If you feed pets outdoors, consider placing food dishes inside overnight. Encourage your neighbors to do the same.

Keep your distance. If a bear shows up in your backyard, stay calm. From a safe distance, shout at it like you would to chase an unwanted dog. If the bear won't leave, call the nearest Game Commission regional office or local police department for assistance.

Eliminate temptation. Bears that visit your area are often drawn there. Neighbors need to work together to reduce an area's appeal to bears. Promptly report road-killed deer to ensure their quick removal. Ask area businesses to keep dumpsters closed and bear-proofed (chained or locked shut).

Check please! If your dog is barking, or cat is clawing at the door to get in, try to determine what has alarmed your pet. But do it cautiously, using outside lights to full advantage and from a safe position, such as a porch or an upstairs window. All unrecognizable outside noises and disturbances should be checked, but don't do it on foot with a flashlight. Black bears blend in too well with nighttime surroundings providing the chance for a close encounter.

Pennsylvania's bear population has been increasing for years, and currently is estimated to be nearly 15,000. Last year, hunters harvested 2,686 bears, and a record high of 354 bears were reported killed on highways.

"As a result of Pennsylvania's large human and bear populations, bears and people are coming into contact more frequently," Ternent said. "These encounters are occurring because human developments are encroaching into bear habitat and some bears have learned to associate residential areas with food. Chance encounters in the field also appear to be more common than before in some areas."

Ternent noted that although bears are no strangers to Pennsylvanians, bears are misunderstood by many.

"Bears should not be feared, nor should they be dismissed as harmless; they simply need to be respected," Ternent said. He also advised:

Stay Calm. If you see a bear and it hasn't seen you, leave the area calmly. Talk to the bear while moving away to help it discover your presence. Choose a route that will not intersect with the bear if it is moving.

Get Back. If you have surprised a bear, slowly back away while quietly talking. Face the bear, but avoid direct eye contact. Do not turn and run; rapid movement may be perceived as danger to a bear that is already feeling threatened. Avoid blocking the bear's only escape route and try to move away from any cubs you see or hear. Do not attempt to climb a tree. A female bear can falsely interpret this as an attempt to get at her cubs, even though the cubs may be in a different tree.

Pay Attention. If a bear is displaying signs of nervousness or discomfort with your presence, such as pacing, swinging its head, or popping its jaws, leave the area. Some bears may bluff charge to within a few feet. If this occurs, stand your ground, wave your arms wildly, and shout at the bear. Turning and running could elicit a chase and you cannot outrun a bear. Bears that appear to be stalking should be confronted and made aware of your willingness to defend by waving your arms and yelling while you continue to back away.

Fight Back. If a bear attacks, fight back as you continue to leave the area. Bears have been driven away with rocks, sticks, binoculars, car keys, or even bare hands.

"Learning about bears and being aware of their habits is a responsibility that comes with living in rural and suburban Pennsylvania or recreating in the outdoors," Ternent said.

Intelligent and curious, black bears are heavy and have short, powerful legs. Adults usually weigh from 200 to 600 pounds, with rare individuals weighing up to 800 pounds. An adult male normally weighs more than an adult female, sometimes twice as much.

Bears may be on the move at anytime, but they're usually most active at night or during evening and morning hours. Bears are omnivorous, eating almost anything from berries, corn, acorns, beechnuts, or even grass to table scraps, carrion, honey and insects.

More information on black bears is available on the Game Commission's website by clicking on Wildlife, and then selecting Black Bear in Pennsylvania.

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