Reports of bears coming down from the mountains and rummaging through backyards and campgrounds in Utah have more than doubled from the same time last year following a wet spring and an increase in their numbers, wildlife officials say.
It comes as conflicts between people and bears have been on the rise elsewhere in the U.S. as populations grow in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and on the East Coast.
Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources has received more than 25 reports of black bears getting into trash cans and campsites so far this year, spokeswoman Faith Jolley said. Most of the reports have been in central Utah, according to numbers released Wednesday. The agency tallied 27 bear encounters for all of 2018.
The sharp increase can be attributed to a larger bear population across the Wasatch Front and a wet spring that kept bears hibernating and hungrier longer than usual, said Riley Peck, a wildlife biologist with the agency.
Peck said last year’s dry summer sent leaner bears into hibernation. That, combined with a very wet, cold spring, “could be making the bears a little bolder in trying to acquire their needed calories,” he said.
In June, a bear was captured and killed after it scratched a boy camping near Hobble Creek Canyon in northern Utah. Days later, officials spotted a second bear in nearby Springville and caught a third bear eating out of garbage cans in Mapleton, a town over.
There also have been recent bear sightings in Spanish Fork Canyon and Woodland Hills. Nobody has been seriously injured.
The encounters don’t suggest a larger trend in Utah, with reports of bear sightings varying widely over the last five years. Wildlife officials recorded 38 encounters in 2015 but received only nine reports the following year. A whopping 84 reports came in 2017.
In other parts of the U.S., the number of grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park has increased so much that federal officials are seeking to remove their status as a threatened species. Court challenges have held up that move. At least 700 grizzlies live in parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho surrounding the park.
The bears have expanded their range by about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) over the past two years, according to government data, leading to more frequent run-ins with hunters and hikers, attacks on livestock and pillaging of crops on farmland.
Those encounters often lead to wildlife officials relocating bears deep in the wilderness or killing them if they are repeat offenders or become used to people.
Black bear conflicts also have been increasing on the East Coast in recent decades, such as in New Jersey, as populations rebound from overhunting.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which responds to conflicts between people and bears, killed more than 350 black bears and relocated more than 400 across the country.
With Utah’s increase in black bears this year, wildlife officials are urging people to protect their homes and campsites to avoid attracting the animals. If facing a black bear, Jolley advises people to stay calm, stand still and fight back if it attacks.
Those in neighborhoods close to the foothills of the mountains should regularly clean their trash containers and secure backyard items that could lure the animal, like fruit trees, barbecue grills and pet supplies, Jolley said.
Hikers visiting Arches and Canyonlands national parks in eastern Utah have to carry their food in bear-proof canisters in certain areas. And visitors staying in the campgrounds are warned not to bring strong-smelling food like tuna, ham or bacon, said Chris Wonderly, a parks spokesman.
Kathy Pollock with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest office said they have posted more warning signs near campgrounds and trailheads after the boy was scratched last month.
Jolley said the belief that Utah isn’t part of “bear country” understates the risks of encountering the animal and gives some residents a false sense of security.
“There are bears in Utah, and people need to be prepared for that,” she said. “We just want to make sure they’re being safe.”