Living and recreating responsibly in bear country

By Karissa Huntsman
Reader Contributor

If you live and recreate in North Idaho, you’re in bear country. As the seasons are changing, bears are emerging from hibernation, and are active from April 1 to Nov. 30. Idaho is home to both black and grizzly bears, so it’s important for both recreationists and people who live in areas with bears to know how to avoid an encounter.

A grizzly bear crosses the road from the forest. Courtesy photo.

If you live in an area with bears, there are many precautions you can take to keep your families, livestock and pets safe. It is imperative that you are aware of what scents could attract bears to your space. Trash, pet food and other scented attractants should be kept in a secure location, like your garage or shop. Grills and barbecues should be kept clean of food and grease, and also stored in a secure location when not in use. Bird feeders act as an easy food source for bears, and should be put away until Dec. 1. You never want to feed a bear, neither intentionally nor accidentally.

When it comes to livestock, beehives, gardens, orchards, berry patches and compost piles, it is important to construct a barrier between them and bears. Electric fencing is highly effective in keeping bears out of these spaces. Dead livestock should be disposed of inside a boneyard that is protected by electric fencing or through sanitation services. 

If you are recreating in bear country, there are many things you can do to keep everyone safe. First, adventure with friends. A good rule of thumb is to hike and camp in groups of two or more. Sixty-three percent of bear attacks worldwide between 2000 and 2015 occurred when the victim was alone. As you hike with your friends, talk to one another and make noise. Most bear attacks are defensive, and bears are less likely to get near humans if they know they are there. Making noise is especially important near streams or dense vegetation, where it might be harder for a bear to notice someone approaching. If you are alone, shout something like, “Hey bear!” at least once every two to three minutes.

Food, personal hygiene products, trash and other scented things all act as bear attractants. They should be properly stored in a bear-resistant canister. These canisters are made with heavy duty material and screw-top lids that are difficult for bears to open. When camping they should be stored 100 yards from your campsite. 

If you have a dog along for an adventure in bear country, it should be kept leashed. Dogs that are unleashed may run ahead on the trail and come across an unsuspecting bear. You don’t want your dog to have that encounter, or to have that bear chase the dog back to you. Keeping your dog leashed is the best way to prevent accidental conflicts.

Lastly, carry bear spray. Check your spray’s expiration date before you go, and make sure that your canister is accessible while you’re out — not tucked away in a backpack. Spray low, in one sweeping motion in front of you, and be aware of the direction of the wind so that the spray doesn’t immediately waft back to you. The Idaho Conservation League offers “bear aware” and bear spray training to the community and is happy to present to local groups who may be interested. 

Bears usually do not want to encounter you any more than you want to encounter them. Living and recreating in bear country comes with responsibility. By planning ahead and preparing, knowing the area and practicing these bear-aware behaviors, you can lessen the chances of encountering a bear on your next hike or camping trip. Using these preventative measures, we can avoid conflict between people and bears — ensuring enough room and safety for people and bears alike. 

Karissa Huntsman is North Idaho community engagement assistant for the Idaho Conservation League.

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