Why early summer brings more bear sightings

If you think bears have been in the news more than usual lately, you’re right. Early summer usually brings a bumper crop of news stories about bears appearing in places they’re not typically seen, from backyards and suburban streets to residential communities. Here’s why.

There are more people in bear country

Today, most Americans live in, recreate in or travel to places bears call home. In fact, the Census Bureau reports that only one in ten Americans have never left the state they were born in. The pandemic accelerated a trend that was already underway: people moving out of cities and into more suburban and rural landscapes in search of a better quality of life.

Part of that quality of life is often living closer to nature. Spending time outdoors and in our parks and forests has never been more popular. In 2021, more than 164 million people (54% of Americans age six and over) participated in some sort of outdoor recreation, the highest number on record. According to the 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends Report from the Outdoor Foundation, more than 58 million people went hiking, 46 million camped and more than 10 million people backpacked. Most of those people were recreating in the bear’s backyard.

There are More Bears in Bear Country

Black bears once roamed America’s forests from coast to coast. European settlement pushed black bears out of much of their historic home range. But black bears are remarkably intelligent, resourceful and adaptable, and populations survived in remote pockets of wilderness.

Today, thanks to new attitudes and decades of enlightened conservation, habitat preservation and management efforts, black bears have made a dramatic comeback and are returning to places where they haven’t been seen in decades. There are once again established bear populations in at least 40 states and frequent sightings in several more.

Bears Have Become Social Media Stars

Even a decade ago bears could wander mostly unnoticed; today bears that trudge through neighborhoods trying to get from here to there wind up on YouTube with their own Facebook pages and Instagram accounts.

Almost everyone has a cell phone with a great camera, and nearly 40% of people have smart home security systems and doorbells linked to cameras that record everyone and everything walking by 24/7. Online shopping has created a porch-pirate epidemic and more people are working from home, so someone is always watching. Social media channels give people an easy way to share videos, photos and “there’s a bear in my backyard!”

Bears Can’t Get Away from it All

Bears must find ways to adapt to more people in their backyard. If a bear denned up in the woods last winter and woke up next to a housing development this spring, people notice when it lumbers off through the neighborhood in search of quieter quarters. Or worst case scenario, doesn’t lumber off, because it discovers that people aren’t all bad; they seem to have brought an endless and dependable food supply with them.

Where are the bears going?

Most bears spotted in unlikely or unusual places in early summer fall into three categories:

Juvenile male bears that denned up with their moms last winter and got booted out this spring. No matter how big and furry they look, these bears are about 18 months old and are just trying to figure out how to live on their own. Juvenile males need to disperse and find a place to call home where they can find food, shelter and eventually a mate. Juvenile female bears, however, are often allowed to move in next door to their moms, so most wandering bears are males.

These young bears are often lonely and lack the fully developed survival skills of an adult bear. They are also hungry and inquisitive and will check out anything that seems as if it might be a source of food. Like human teenagers, they are at a very impressionable stage of life. If they quickly discover that human places should be avoided, they will be forced to learn to support themselves as wild bears. If they find the backyard pickings are easy, they start down a road that is often a dead end for them.

Adult male bears are roaming far and wide in search of a mate. Both male and female bears may mate several times in early summer; in fact, it’s not unusual for cubs from a single litter to each have a different father. But female bears rarely leave their home ranges; for the good of the gene pool, they let the males come find them. So adult male bears may travel long distances through various females’ home ranges.

New moms have lots of mouths to feed. Mother bears may have between one and six cubs depending on her for their survival. Natural spring and early summer food sources such as grasses and developing plants are just not as calorie-dense and nutritious as the nuts and fruits that ripen later in the year. So mother bears often need to travel further from their dens looking for food. Cubs take after their parents in several ways: they are super-smart, learn quickly and are very adaptable. So if mom teaches them to raid the garbage or bat down bird feeders or sends them in through pet doors to see what’s in the kitchen, it creates a whole new generation of problems for people and bears.

What you can do:

Be extra-vigilant during this extra-critical time. Follow the At-Home BearWise Basics and use the BearWise At-Home Checklist make sure there’s nothing around your property or home that will attract bears.

Don’t approach bears. Don’t feed bears. Don’t call all your neighbors to come watch. If the bear is headed to a safe space (for bears), just leave it alone. If you’re worried it’s at risk because it’s wandering through a densely populated area, call your state wildlife agency. And then make sure you and your neighbors have no unsecured food sources, pet food, birdseed or other attractants that would tempt it to hang around.

Thanks for living BearWise and keeping bears wild and people safe.

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Dedicated to helping people live responsibly with black bears.
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