Whitesburg KY

Bears not stocked here, official says

The expanding black bear population in Letcher and other eastern Kentucky border counties is the result of bears returning to their natural habitat and was not brought on by restocking efforts, a state wildlife biologist says.

Stephen Dobey, a bear biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife in Frankfort, said his office was busy last week fielding complaints from several Letcher County residents – mostly from the Jenkins area – who became upset after reading that a game warden told the Letcher Fiscal Court that people here should learn to mentally “embrace” the bears.

The comments to the fiscal court by Fish and Wildlife Officer Frank Campbell were made in response to questions about the increased number of bear sightings here. Dobey said many residents erroneously believe the state is responsible for the growth in the number of bears.

Because many Kentuckians have not had to deal with bears before, Dobey and other department officials are working to educate the public about bear biology and how to avoid problems between the animals and humans.

Dobey said bears become more noticeable at this time of year because the animals are trying to regain weight that was lost while denning.

“Right now is the transition phase between winter and summer,” Dobey explained. “There are not a lot of nuts or berries out there, so bears are looking for food. In the wild, bears will eat other foods, such as grasses, and do just fine.”

Dobey said bears are always on the lookout for available food and the best way to keep them from coming into your yard is to keep garbage inside until the day it is set out for collection. He also said that if bears are coming into someone’s yard, it may be to visit a bird feeder too. Dobey said if someone sees a bear they shouldn’t panic or flee.

“Bears are timid solitary creatures,” said Dobey. “Don’t run from a bear. It may trigger their chase instinct. Be dominant, yell and throw things.”

Dobey also said bears don’t like dogs. He said that while bears are solitary, their tolerance of dogs and people is greatly increased by the easy availability of food and the best thing for homeowners to do is to eliminate access to human food and garbage.

Dobey says the following steps should be taken if residents have a bear in their neighborhood or immediate area:

1. Keep garbage inside a closed structure and not outside.

2. Put garbage outside on the morning of pickup, rather than the night before.

3. Do not store pet food outside and only feed pets enough for one meal.

4. Bring birdfeeders inside until sightings cease.

5. Do not feed bears.

In addition, said Dobey, conflicts can be further prevented by “teaching” bears that it is not acceptable to spend time in or around residential areas. Black bears are typically shy, elusive animals and can usually be scared from an area by yelling, making loud noises, or throwing objects. Quite often, those simple behaviors are enough to intimidate a bear into leaving the immediate vicinity.

The worst thing that people can do, said Dobey, is intentionally or unintentionally feed bears so as to increase viewing opportunities. Bears that are fed or routinely acquire garbage around homes learn to associate people with food, and consequently lose their natural fear of humans. Once that happens, bears rarely alter those unacceptable behaviors and wildlife officials are forced to kill such bears if they are deemed a risk to human safety.

Feeding bears is illegal in Kentucky. However, that hasn’t stopped some people.

“This year, the incidence of people feeding bears is much more widespread,” Dobey said. “People should never feed bears. When you feed a bear, you’re teaching it that humans are a source of food. That will inevitably cause problems in the future.”

Campers also should be mindful of how they handle their food. In McCreary County, campers at Great Meadows have created problem bears by leaving food in fire pits instead of using the area’s bear-resistant garbage cans.

“If you’re in a campground, store your food inside of your car or truck,” Dobey said. “Don’t leave it unattended on a picnic table or inside your tent.”

Bear cubs are now out with their mothers. Year-old bears, which can easily travel 10 miles a day in rough terrain, will soon be dispersing.

The direct or indirect feeding of bears is illegal in Kentucky and punishable by a fine of up to $500.

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