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Outdoors: Wildlife

Two factors have boosted bear encounters in Olympic National Park in recent years: the increasing number of people heading into the backcountry and a ban on hunting in the park, which has made bears less afraid of people.

Bear essentials

Keep food, garbage up and away when camping to avoid close encounters


Originally published July 24, 2001

OLYMPIA -- The black bear reached out from the tree and swatted in vain at bags of food.

The food bags were hung by campers from a rope strung between two trees. But when the bear couldn't reach the bags from one tree, it descended and climbed the other.

This bear was determined.

"He was not distracted by people blowing whistles or banging on pots and pans," says Marjorie Simpson of Federal Way, who with her husband, John, was hiking up the Elwha River in Olympic National Park last year when they happened upon the scene.

Once in the second tree, the weight of the bear -- about 200 pounds -- broke the branch holding the rope. The animal then made off with the bags of food.

The Simpsons are avid hikers and backpackers and have seen black bears on several occasions, but they have never been bothered by them.

"We're always very careful with our food," Marjorie Simpson says. They hang it carefully in trees and never keep food in their tent.

Black bears are common in Washington and the backcountry of the Olympic National Park. Though bear numbers appear stable, encounters are on the rise -- perhaps because more people are heading into the woods.

Bear experts say the best way for humans to avoid conflicts is to keep bears out of food and garbage. Once bears learn to associate humans with food, they can become a threat, says Larry Lang, Olympic National Park ranger and coordinator of the park's wilderness information center.

"Once a bear has possession of your stuff, you don't want to argue with it too much," Land says. If bears become too aggressive with campers, park officials take action that varies from closing an area to camping, to hazing the bear, to killing the bear in serious cases.

Penalties for improper food storage can include a $50 fine, Lang said.

Washington has an estimated 25,000 black bears, says Craig Bartlett, state Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman. So far this year, Fish and Wildlife has gotten about 500 complaints on bears.

Of those, 38 involve human-bear interactions -- from bears in backyards to hikers in the back country.

But attacks on humans are rare. The last fatality on record was in the 1940s. The most recent black-bear attacks on humans were in Stevens County in 1998, in Skamania County in 1997 and in Columbia County in 1995, Bartlett says.

There are no records of bear attacks in Olympic National Park, Lang says.

Once, while hiking the Hoh River Trail, the Simpsons came upon a bear with a deer carcass about 50 yards from the trail. The bear guarded the carcass for about three days. They stayed clear.

"We try to respect the animals in their area," she says. "We don't bother them."

Seeing a bear is not a bad thing, says Donny Martorello, Fish and Wildlife bear and cougar specialist.

Most black bears are curious, not aggressive. If a hiker stumbles onto a bear with cubs, the bear may be uncomfortable and can be dangerous.

If that happens, make yourself known, talk to the bear, back away slowly, Martorello says. Don't pick a fight, and don't try to run from a bear. You can't outrun it, and running may trigger an attack.

Climbing a tree is not necessarily the best escape -- black bears are excellent climbers.

People should hike in groups, keep children close at all times and be aware of bear signs.

Berry pickers should expect bears in good patches.

Black bears are powerful and deserve respect, he says. People should take them seriously, but there is no reason to fear them.

Though no grizzly bears are found on the Olympic Peninsula, they may be in North Cascades National Park and in northeastern Washington, says Doug Zimmer, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

People who venture into grizzly habitat should consider carrying pepper spray in addition to other bear precautions.

"It's a bear deterrent. It's not 100 percent. It's not brains in a can," Zimmer says. "You still have to think about what you're doing."

And the best defense in grizzly and black bear country alike is to think about what to do if you encounter a bear on the trail -- before it happens, he says.

"Use your brain, it's your best weapon," Zimmer says. "They're not out there hunting you."

N.S. Nokkentved covers the outdoors for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5445.

The Olympian Copyright 2001

The Olympian - Olympia, Washington

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2002 The Olympian.