In a few weeks, black bears will begin emerging from their dens. Males usually emerge first, in late March or early April, while females with newborn cubs are the last to leave dens, usually in late April or early May. Having spent the past several months in a hole in the ground, they will be hungry!

Spring food for bears includes nutritious early-season grasses and forbs, ants, bees, larvae, carcasses of winter-killed animals and as summer approaches, newborn deer fawns and elk calves where available. What we hope they will not be eating is residential garbage, pet food, birdseed or backyard domestic animals such as chickens and goats, and we need the public’s assistance to make this happen.

Last year was a busy year for bear calls in the Sheridan area. Reports of bears in residential areas, particularly in Story, began earlier than usual and were more frequent than in past years. Local wildlife managers surmise that last year’s unusually long, wet spring possibly delayed the onset of natural foods such as forbs that bears expect to find upon emerging from their dens. Following their noses then led them into conflict with humans in areas where trash and other attractants were unsecured and accessible to bears. Once bears found these new sources of food, they stayed in the area, visiting garbage cans, commercial dumpsters and backyards where bird feeders and bowls of pet food were available for the taking.

Once a bear gets in the routine of frequenting residential areas and receiving a food reward for doing so, their behavior begins to change. They become less fearful of humans, defensive of the food source and reluctant to leave the area. Wildlife managers refer to bears with these behaviors as habituated or food-conditioned. These bears can then be a threat to human safety and are relocated or euthanized.

Relocation is a first choice when possible, but it is not always successful. There are several examples of bears in our area being relocated dozens of miles away, but returning to their original capture location, knowing that food is available there. They have also sometimes sought out nearby human habitations in their new location, equating the presence of people to the presence of easy food and creating conflict in a new area. These bears are then euthanized, as are bears that display aggressive behavior to humans in their first reported conflict.

Most of Sheridan County is bear habitat and communities such as Story, Buffalo and Dayton have bears enter town almost every year. However, if food is unavailable, most bears will choose to leave on their own. Bears are naturally wary of humans and the accompanying commotion of residential areas.

We need the public’s help to keep bears safe and prevent conflicts. There are no city or county regulations regarding the securement of garbage or other attractants, so we rely only on the voluntary efforts of area homeowners. In the next month, please look at your property to identify and secure any potential food sources that a bear may find — horse grain or livestock feed, dog or cat food in outside bowls, birdfeeders hung less than 10 feet from the ground — anything with a good odor that may attract a bear.

Just as importantly, please begin keeping your household garbage in a hard-sided shed or garage until the morning of pickup and encourage your neighbors to do so as well. In addition, consider ways to protect your animals if you raise domestic chickens, goats, bees or other small animals.

To help Sheridan County residents learn about bear biology and behavior, how to prevent conflicts and what to do in an encounter, Game and Fish will host two Living in Large Carnivore Country workshops March 7 — one at 9:30 a.m. at Story Branch Library and another at 1:30 p.m. at Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.

In addition to the informational presentation, this year’s program will include a demonstration of electric fencing, ‘unwelcome mats’ and other deterrents to prevent conflicts. These workshops are appropriate for all ages and for anyone who lives or recreates in bear country.

Christina Schmidt is public information specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish Department Sheridan Region.