It’s spring in the Wood River Valley—tree buds have begun to swell, and the Big Wood River continues to rise with snowmelt. But as plants break their long winter dormancy, says Idaho Department of Fish and Game Regional Communications Manager Terry Thompson, black bears are doing the same.
And they’re waking up with an appetite.
“After emerging from their dens, black bears will embark on a quest to eat between 15,000 and 20,000 calories per day to build up their fat reserves, using their extremely keen sense of smell to search for food,” Thompson said. “In fact, it’s believed that a bear’s sense of smell, often measured in miles, is seven times better than a bloodhound’s.”
Thompson said that after burning their fat reserves in hibernation—15 to 30 percent of their body weight for boars, or males, and up to 40 percent for sows—black bears will immediately start looking for food. That’s “mostly spring grasses, but pretty much anything that can provide easy calories,” he said.
While bears’ astute sense of smell is a great benefit, it can also be a “great problem” for themselves and for wildlife managers.
“Bears are often drawn to easy food rewards, which are too often leftover food scraps fermenting in neighborhood garbage cans,” Thompson said. “We’ve all heard the saying ‘a fed bear is a dead bear,’ which is an unfortunate reality. Allowing bears to become comfortable living in your neighborhood, while exciting to some, is a possible death sentence for the animal.”
Thompson said once a bear realizes that walking across your yard or deck is acceptable—and potentially rewarding—it will continue that behavior.
It’s important to note that relocating a food-habituated bear is not an option, he added, because the bear will return to its trapping site expecting a food reward.
But Thompson emphasized that residents can do their part to ensure that bears don’t become accustomed to human food. Rather than scrambling to photograph a bear, one should haze the animal—if possible—to help keep it out of the community.
“If you spot a bear around your house or in your neighborhood and if it can be done safely, immediate action is necessary to let it know it is not welcome. This can be done by loud yelling, clapping your hands or banging on pots and pans,” he said.
To keep bears wild, Thompson said both food and trash must be secured. That means keeping garbage in the garage until the morning of pick-up or using a bear-resistant garbage container, storing pet and livestock food where a bear can’t access it and removing bird feeders in the summer.
“Bears can get a tremendous amount of calories from birdfeeders, such as a 2,500-calorie reward from one pound of black oil sunflower seed or a 3,200-calorie reward from 32 ounces of hummingbird food.”
Another tip offered by Fish and Game officials is installing an electric fence around chicken coops and beehives.
“Wood River Valley residents pride themselves on living in close proximity to wildlife,” Thompson said. “However, that also means everyone shares the responsibility to preserve the wild nature of bears, an essential part of their survival.”