EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Ursus americanus, the American black bear, is a large and exciting creature. It can swim and climb trees with ease, smell food a quarter mile away and reach a bursting speed of 30 mph when charging or fleeing.
An adult black bear can kill a hunting dog with a single swipe from one of its powerful forearms. Fortunately, bears don’t think of humans as food. Mostly people make them nervous and they shy away from humans.
But when people feed bears – even if unintentionally, as with bird feeders – they increase the odds of something going wrong. For this reason, a 2007 law requires that people cease feeding other animals, like birds or deer, if a bear has visited the feeding sites.
Bears don’t see that well and their hearing is just okay. It’s their powerful sense of smell that guides them, and it’s the bear’s nose that can get it in trouble. Although bears don’t like being around people, they love people food and they have a special weakness for sweets.
“Never underestimate a bear’s sense of smell,” said Mike Gappa, a retired DNR wildlife biologist and bear researcher.
An empty candy bar wrapper in a camper’s tent can attract a bear from hundreds of yards away, Gappa said.
People who regularly camp in bear country know the drill. They prepare food a good distance from their tents. They keep dishes and cooking utensils clean. All food, and anything sweet smelling, like toothpaste, is either stored in a bear-proof container far from camp, or is suspended from high tree limbs with two ropes to prevent a bear from reeling it in.
In the early 1980s, there were fewer bears in Wisconsin, around 5,000, nearly all of them north of north of State highway 64. With the advent of tightly controlled hunting their numbers have grown dramatically and their range is expanding. A recent study puts the current population at about 36,000 bears.
Bear country is moving south and folks who have never had to think about living near bears now have that opportunity. Getting along with bears, Gappa said, is primarily a matter of common sense. Here are some tips:
* Take bird feeders down in mid April and wait until late fall to put them out again. Otherwise keep feeders at least 10 feet off the ground and five feet away from a tree trunk, suspended perhaps from a limb too thin to support a bear. If you see a bear near the feeders or evidence of a bear, remove the feeders and wait at least a month before replacing them. That’s the law.
* Keep garbage cans tightly closed and locked inside a garage or other structure at night. Occasionally clean garbage cans with ammonia. Consider using a commercially available bear-resistant container.
* Bring pet food inside at night.
* Keep outdoor grills clean, and if a bear comes around, keep the grill stored inside.
* Keep compost piles a safe distance from the home. Do not compost meat, fish or other pungent scraps.
* If hiking in bear country, be especially alert at dawn and dusk. Keep children and pets close. Make plenty of noise. Rustle the leaves. The human voice carries far in the woods, so have a nice conversation or try singing a song. You get extra points if you sing in key.
Damage or nuisance complaints about bears, wolves and birds are answered by Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The toll free number in Wisconsin is 800- 433-0663 for problems south of Waupun and 1-800-228-1368, the Rhinelander office, for problems in northern Wisconsin.p>