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Empire, MI - Northern Michigan is "bear country" and seeing one of these magnificent creatures may be a highlight of your visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (National Lakeshore) this summer as bear sightings have increased, particularly near the Platte River Campground. In 2010, park rangers received over two dozen reports of bears and bear "signs" in and adjacent to the park. This year, several similar reports have already been received. National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich indicated the park is preparing for increased bear activity, stating, "The safety of our visitors and staff is our first priority."
Park Biologists compile data on bear sightings, including whether the bear was seeking food from facilities within the National Lakeshore. Bears, like humans, are omnivores and although 85% of their diet is made of berries and nuts, with their powerful sense of smell they also are attracted to the food we eat. Park Biologist Sue Jennings noted, "We've been very fortunate there have not been any serious incidents." She attributes this to the park's efforts to educate visitors about being "bear aware," including the importance of proper food storage in the campgrounds. "We've had very good compliance from our campers," Jennings stated.
Park rangers are monitoring the situation closely. All reports are investigated and park rangers have been trained in non-lethal hazing techniques, such as firing blank rounds in the air or "bean bag rounds" at the bear's rump to scare the animal. The bean bags will not penetrate the bear, but provide enough of a sting that they will think twice about returning. Once bears associate people and food, they become habituated and likely to return to the area in search of an easy meal. If a bear has lost its fear of people, it becomes more difficult to frighten away and often must be lethally removed in order to prevent a serious threat. Additionally, garbage-fed bears may become malnourished or sustain life-threatening injuries from eating food scraps out of cans, bottles, or plastics. "Michigan's black bears in the spring have one main thing on their mind -- food," said Russ Mason, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division. "The Sleeping Bear Dunes are a spectacular place to view Michigan wildlife, and campers there should be aware that bears are present and hungry, and should not be fed under any circumstance. Bears that are habituated to humans associate them with food and can get aggressive."
For this reason, park staff ask campers to keep their camp areas free of food. All food, containers, and stoves should be stored in vehicles or campers anytime campsites are left unattended. Never leave food unattended and empty food refuse into a trash bag. All trash should be taken immediately to the campground dumpsters. Pet food should not be left out. Campers who disobey these regulations may be subject to fines. It is recommended that homeowners in the area remove bird feeders from their yards and place their trash out the morning of collection rather than the night before.
Park Biologist Jennings advises not to panic if you come in contact with a bear. The best thing to do is not to run, but to slowly increase your distance from the bear by watchfully walking away. If the bear starts to show aggressive behavior, such as popping its teeth, swiping at the ground, or making loud noises, you are too close. You can discourage attacks from an aggressive bear by making yourself look as large as possible, shouting, and banging items together. Never approach a bear, especially one with cubs as they can be especially aggressive in protecting their young.
Deputy Superintendent Ulrich reminds visitors that "If you do get to see a bear, feel free to take pictures, and enjoy this beautiful animal at a distance. It would be greatly appreciated if, immediately after your sighting, you contact a park employee at a campground office or the visitor center to fill out a bear sighting report."