A yearling black bear waits for its mother to return. Most likely she won’t. This time of year juvenile bears are separated, sometimes forcibly, by their mothers as families break up during mating season. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)

A yearling black bear waits for its mother to return. Most likely she won’t. This time of year juvenile bears are separated, sometimes forcibly, by their mothers as families break up during mating season. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)

Bearing witness: Young bears get the boot from mom

With mating season for adults underway, juveniles seek out easy food sources in neighborhoods.

It’s a tough time of year for juvenile bears. In June when the young bears are about 18 months old their mothers abandon them, often very abruptly and bluntly, to enter courtship and start a new family. The youngsters often appear forlorn and confused. That’s the situation for a young bear whose photo was taken recently in a valley yard.

One day mom may have been tenderly nursing her yearlings then the next day she fiercely swats them away and leaves them on their own.

A juvenile bear rests on a stump. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)

A juvenile bear rests on a stump. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)

It’s known as “family breakup” among scientists.

A life history explains this pattern. Most black bears — Juneau’s primary species of bears — are born in January or February inside a snug den. Their mother nurses them as the kitten-sized cubs grow, and stay warm snuggled against her and their siblings. In late April or May the family emerges from the den just as spring grasses and plants send up tender shoots that are ideal to eat. Throughout the summer the cubs learn from their mother what to eat, where to go and how to survive. They den together as a family the next winter, again emerging in spring.

But then things change suddenly. Mother is ready to mate in June and she chases off the yearlings who must fend for themselves. The separation can seem brutal to observers when they see rough maternal discipline sending the juveniles away. She no longer tolerates her 18-month-olds.

It’s for their own good, as human parents often say. Mating season is about to begin.

A juvenile black bear is shown climbing out of an unsecured dumpster on June 30, 2022, likely with human assistance from a strategically placed ladder and board. Its age can be assumed by a smaller-sized body and proportionately very large ears. Young 18-month-old black bears are currently being driven off by their mothers during “family breakup,” a period when adult females and adult males begin mating. Male bears can threaten or kill juveniles. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

A juvenile black bear is shown climbing out of an unsecured dumpster on June 30, 2022, likely with human assistance from a strategically placed ladder and board. Its age can be assumed by a smaller-sized body and proportionately very large ears. Young 18-month-old black bears are currently being driven off by their mothers during “family breakup,” a period when adult females and adult males begin mating. Male bears can threaten or kill juveniles. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Mating for black bears occurs in June or July. Boars can threaten or kill yearlings so mother bears force their youngsters to stay away from her for their own safety. Courtship can be a tender time of male and female adult bears foraging together, playing or getting rowdy and copulating frequently. It can also be dangerous. Males are single-minded, sometimes aggressive, as they follow a female and await her signal for engagement. Humans and young bears need to avoid coming between two bears focused on sex.

When the mother bear has sent the yearlings away it’s a time when problems can start for juveniles. They will seek food where their mother taught them to find it or they may sniff a tasty meal at a backyard barbecue grill, bird feeder, chicken coop or trash can. Although nature provides all the natural foods they need to survive, an easy meal is tempting.

People can help in the transition to independence.

“It’s time to take down bird feeders,” said Carl Koch, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Conservation Division. Bird feeders are easy targets for bears with spillage below and energy-rich seeds in containers dangling from branches, posts and window frames. Wild foods are better for the birds now as well.

“Chicken coops are another attraction for bears,” Koch said. “A simple solution is an electric fence surrounding the chicken coop.”

A Rhode Island Red hen surveys her electrified chicken coop fencing. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

A Rhode Island Red hen surveys her electrified chicken coop fencing. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

The department lends temporary electric fences to homeowners until they can buy or build their own. The zap of even weak electric shock discourages most bears who will search for a less painful food source.

A nonprofit group has stepped up to help. Defenders of Wildlife has a grant program to reimburse homeowners for a percentage of the cost of electric fencing and installation. The group has an online guide and details on their website at www.defenders.org/got-bears.

The program started in the Lower 48 and has expanded to Alaska. Presently the reimbursement program exists in two Alaska locations: Kenai where 37 electric fences have been supported since 2019 and Southeast Alaska where 20 electric fences have been installed since 2022. Defenders has recently signed a cooperative agreement with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska to assist with electrifying properties managed by that organization.

Eliminating attractants is key to keeping bears wild and people safe, according to ADFG’s website. That most often means taking care of household trash by freezing odiferous items, rinsing out food containers and keeping trash indoors as much as possible until pickup. Making the trash less smelly will keep bears off the porch and save homeowners from nasty cleanups in the yard.

Typical trash cans distributed by Alaska Waste are not bear-resistant. However, some models are better able to remain locked when bears try to open them. Contact the local trash pickup service to learn more. Keeping the larger bear-resistant containers lashed upright to a tree or pole helps secure them.

Typical trash service cans are not bear resistant. Keeping trash indoors until pickup day preserves human and bear safety. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Typical trash service cans are not bear resistant. Keeping trash indoors until pickup day preserves human and bear safety. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Vehicles can be another attractant especially when food is inside.

“Bears are smart,” Koch said. “They have figured out how to open car doors with their paws or their mouths. Some newer model vehicles are very easy for a bear to open.”

He encourages residents to keep their vehicles locked even during the day and to remove food that may entice bears.

“Once a bear gets into a car the door can close and trap the bear inside,” Koch added. That usually results in a panicked bear and a destroyed vehicle interior as the animal tears apart the door panels, ceiling liner and seats to get free. “Bears have been known to set off airbags,” he added, which would frighten a bear and make it more desperate to escape.

“Locking the doors when you step away is a quick and simple solution” to save a vehicle and the bear, he said.

Dumpsters can also be problematic particularly in communal housing developments when many people use them. Sturdy lids with locked cables, dumpsters chained to a concrete pad, and other preventative measures keep apartment and condo dwellers safe.

“Bears jams can be a hazard, too,” Koch said. He has seen vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road as people watch bears. It is unlawful to stop or park within eight feet of the road except in an emergency. Law enforcement officers may ticket offenders who endanger themselves and other drivers on the highway.

A chicken coop wired with electric fencing to deter bears in a Mendenhall Valley yard. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

A chicken coop wired with electric fencing to deter bears in a Mendenhall Valley yard. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Some bear actions are benign. ADFG says there is no need to call the department if a bear just wanders through a backyard, but if a bruin gets too comfortable and lingers around the house call the Juneau Police Department at (907) 586-0600 to report the situation. JPD will follow up with their Community Service Officer or notify Fish and Game officials at (907) 465-4265 during business hours. If a bear is trying to break into a house call 911.

ADFG personnel strive to avoid relocating or killing a bear that has become troublesome. People can ensure longer lives for bears by learning how to “keep bears wild and people safe,” a slogan the department repeats frequently in public service messages. Recommendations are explained on the department’s website under “Living with Bears.” The key is to keep human food away from bears. It is unlawful to intentionally or unintentionally feed bears.

Back to the forlorn juvenile bear who was lost without its mother two weeks ago. It waited for hours, lingering and resting on a stump in a valley yard. The bear is surrounded by natural foods that are wild and nourishing and that can sustain it. Its fate often depends on residents being careful and thoughtful about living respectfully with bears who are trying to find their way among humans.

• Contact Laurie Craig at laurie.craig@juneauempire.com.

Dumpsters should be anchored to a concrete pad by chains and cable locks on strong metal lids. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Dumpsters should be anchored to a concrete pad by chains and cable locks on strong metal lids. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

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