Now’s the time for spring cleaning as black bears’ alarm clocks start ringing

A black bear standing on a brick patio, torn garbage bags at its feet and a grey garbage can knocked over in front of it. There is a wooden porch railing in the foreground and white wood fence in the background.
Black bear feeding on garbage at someone’s home in Washington. Public photo submission.

If you live in Washington, chances are you live in bear country. Black bears may be present nearly anywhere in our state, including suburban areas and greenbelts near towns and neighborhoods. Washingtonians have a responsibility to take simple precautions to help avoid conflicts that can put both people and wildlife at risk.

Each spring, black bears emerge from winter dens and immediately begin feeding on grass and flowers. Once their digestive system has “woken up” from their winter slumber, they begin their search for more high-calorie meals. It isn’t uncommon to see a bear in developed areas where they are drawn to attractants like garbage cans, pet food, or birdseed.

A pound of birdseed provides 1,700 calories, compared to only 600 calories from a pound of blueberries. Imagine how many calories are in your garbage can!

WDFW Living with Black Bears video

Some people are tempted to feed bears or allow them to forage on their lawn or landscaping, thinking they are helping the bears. This can be especially true when people see female bears (sows) with their young (cubs). The truth is, wildlife don’t need our help, and feeding wildlife can cause more harm than good. Sows that become habituated to human food may teach that behavior to their cubs, leading the cubs to grow up reliant on human food instead of being equipped to survive in the wild. Once black bears know about a non-natural food source, they keep coming back and can lose their fear of humans.

Never attempt to provide food for black bears or allow them to be comfortable around people — this can lead to problems for both bears and people. (Not to mention, it’s against the law!)

Removing human-provided food sources is the best way to encourage bears to move along and prevent human-black bear conflicts.

Black bears are naturally wary of humans but can overcome their fear when people reward them (intentionally or unintentionally!) with high-calorie food sources. Did you know they can smell food from over a mile away? With both temperatures and black bear activity increasing, we’re asking for your help to secure unnatural food sources and reduce potential bear encounters.

A black bear feeding on pet food on someone’s patio in Washington, captured on a home security camera. Public video submission.

Please take a moment to survey the outside of your home and remove common black bear attractants. Follow these tips to prevent attracting bears to your home and to avoid negative bear interactions this spring:

  • Never intentionally feed bears or other backyard wildlife.
  • Always keep garbage cans in a garage or a sturdy building until collection day.
  • Take down seed, suet, and hummingbird feeders until fall.
  • Clean up fallen fruit or other possible attractants around your home.
  • Remove pet food from wildlife-accessible areas and feed your pets inside.
  • Thoroughly clean barbecue grills after each use and store them in a secure building.
  • Cage and electric fence your domestic fowl and livestock pens.
  • Avoid storing food in your car.
  • If you see a black bear on your property, stay at a safe distance and make as much noise as possible to try to deter it away.
A black bear walking through someone’s back yard, looking toward the camera and with one front leg raised as it walks. There is a tall wooden fence and a firewood pile behind the bear.
Black bear on someone’s property in Washington. Public photo submission.

When recreating outdoors, you can also help prevent bear encounters by taking some simple steps:

  • Do not store food in your campsite or sleeping area.
  • Promptly clean up all spilled food.
  • Wash up after eating, including you and your childrens’ hands, faces, and clothing.
  • Wash all cooking utensils.
  • “Pack it in, pack it out:” do not leave food or other waste behind at the end of your camping trip. Do not dispose of cooking oils or fats near your campsite.
  • Keep all attractants at least 100 yards away from camping areas. If that isn’t possible, seal uneaten food and scented personal items (like lotion or toothpaste) in airtight containers and store in bear-resistant canisters or food lockers. Encourage your neighboring campers to do the same. You can find bear-resistant canisters at local sports stores.
  • If you are traveling and staying in a vacation rental, remember that trash pickup may not occur until days after your stay ends. Pack out your garbage and dispose of it at a proper facility if you’ll be leaving before pickup — and encourage the property owner to share this guidance with future tenants.
A door hanger used by WDFW to educate the public about Washington laws prohibiting feeding or attracting carnivores. There are two stacks of hangers, showing the back and front of the hanger, lying on smooth river rock. There is a green fern in the top-left corner.
The door hanger WDFW will place at locations reminding people about laws prohibiting feeding or attracting black bears. WDFW photo.

WDFW responds to a variety of situations involving black bears every year, and most are due to human-provided attractants leading to preventable encounters. We often speak with residents or leave a flyer reminding them to secure or remove garbage and other attractants. Remember that feeding or negligently attracting black bears or other large wild carnivores is illegal in Washington under RCW 77.15.790 and other state laws. Secure or remove bear attractants or face fines of up to $1,025.

Washingtonians can protect themselves, protect their property, and protect wildlife by preventing bears from becoming habituated to non-natural food sources. Please visit the WDFW website to learn how you can do your part to keep bears wild.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.