Time to Bear Proof Your Home for Fall

John M. Dabbs

Bear activity has been increasing the Tri-Cities area over the past few years. The black bear population continues to increase in Tennessee. The species has been making a remarkable comeback since the 1970s in Tennessee. In recent years we have seen several killed in automobile accidents. Last year one was killed near mile marker 55 on Interstate 81, and another near mile marker 30 on Interstate 26.

Bear feasting time

Believe it or not, late-summer is hear and autumn is just around the corner. Tennessee bears have begun searching for food in earnest, as they prepare for hibernation. Bears in temperate parts of the U.S. are typically more active in the early morning and early evening areas - taking a siesta during the middle of the day to conserve energy.

During peak feeding times of the year, bears will spend around 20 hours per day searching for food. This power eating is called hyperphasia. Although black bears are listed as carnivorous, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) reminds us they are primarily omnivores. Bears consume seasonally abundant foods. Their diet consists of berries, fruits, nuts, insects, roots, grasses, small rodents, bird eggs and carrion.

In the fall, acorns are a significant food source for them. Like other wild animals, black bears are opportunists. This also means - like us, they are basically lazy. They look for effortless calories.

When they have easy access to food, such as human trash, birdseed, dog food, and other easily accessible sources of nourishment left out by people, they'll go for it. They'd much rather get something easy to get to and eat. It takes energy to work for it.

Neighborhood presence

Bears are often seen in and around areas near the National Forests and National Parks. You'll often see or hear about them getting into trouble in the Gatlinburg area. They have also been more visible in the Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City areas lately. It's not unheard of, but we have seen an uptick in the number of sitings in residential neighborhoods of the cities.

Bears are primarily drawn to apartments and houses where trash, pets, or bird feeders are present. The size of a black bear's nose is a good indication of its olfactory senses. Biologists say black bears have a sense of smell 100 times better than a human. A person might suggest they can smell almost as good as bloodhound - but they'd be wrong. A black bear can smell seven times than a bloodhound.

They are more likely to frequent neighborhood areas where they can smell food in the air (pet food, bird food, rubbish with discarded food) during spring when coming out of hibernation, or in fall when preparing for hibernation.

Calories

Black bears have a need to feed. A average size black bear will consume around 5,000 calories a day during the spring and summer. When preparing to hibernate in late summer and fall, black bears feed more often. They need to consume up to 50,000 calories per day - gaining around 100 pounds, in preparation for their winter nap.

Bear proofing

The site bearwise.org has several good tips for bear-proofing your home, and information about bears in general. Bears will search out high-calorie easy access foods. Here are the top areas where you can work to make your residence less enticing to bears:

  • Barbecue Grills - Clean your grill, and empty the grease tray. The smells from those backyard cookouts linger, especially with a grill that has not been cleaned thoroughly afterward. You shouldn't be leaving food unattended either during the cooking process.
  • Gardens/Orchards - Pick ripe fruit and berries as soon as they are ready, or even a few days before. If the location is close to your home, you should also pick up any fruits and berries that have fallen from the vines. Whether discarded, or fallen on their own - all edibles should be removed from the area and disposed of properly.
  • Compost - Do not any meat products to your compost pile. All fruit and vegetables discarded into your compost pile should be immediately covered with a thick layer of lawn clippings.
  • Livestock - Large animals are generally safe from bears, but honey, bee larva, chickens and similar small livestock (including eggs and feed) may attract hungry bears. You should protect these with electric fencing and motion-detecting lights. They should be used around chicken coops, beehives and livestock enclosures.
  • Bird Feeders - Resist the urge to fill your feeders at the first sign of autumn. Bird feeders can hold around seven pounds of seed - worth 18,000 calories to a bear. Feeders should not be filled until winter, generally speaking. There is plenty of food for birds even late into the fall season.
  • Garbage - Garbage should be kept in bear-proof containers, or locked inside sturdy buildings. The longer nights give bears more time to prowl undetected for food in neighborhoods.
  • Pets - Pets should be fed indoors when possible. Outdoor pets should not be given more food than they will eat in a short period of time, keeping all extra food locked in a sturdy container or building. Their eating and food/water area should be kept clean and free of leftover food. When taking indoor pets outside, it's advisable to check the area to make sure it's safe for them before letting them outside.

The numbers

Do the numbers substantiate the increased sitings over the past few years? Not really. TWRA bear surveys are conducted annually. In the past few years the counts for the area have either not increased significantly, or decreased.

This could be due to several reasons, the most likely being opportunistic instincts. The bears may be finding it easier to find food in the cities and neighborhoods than in the forest. This would have them moving into the cities in search of food instead of the bear survey areas. It could also be there aren't as many bears as we think, because the amount of food available in the forests isn't enough to sustain them - forcing them to forage around homes more often.

You can find more information at the TWRA website at www.tn.gov/twra and at www.bearwise.org.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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