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They're awake. Now, what?

They're awake and crawling out of their dens looking for food, any food: the tender green shoots of plants reaching for the warm spring sun as well as bugs, bark and carcasses of animals that didn't make it through the winter. And garbage.

They're awake and crawling out of their dens looking for food, any food: the tender green shoots of plants reaching for the warm spring sun as well as bugs, bark and carcasses of animals that didn't make it through the winter.

And garbage.

For some black bears, especially those living in green spaces and forests around the Tri-Cities, humans' garbage is as good as anything because they aren't picky eaters. They'll eat the plastic wrap off a stale chocolate bar.

Thus, as this is the time of year when lean and shaggy bears - many of them adolescent males but some females with newborn cubs or young sows - will emerge from their winter hiding places, Tri-City residents are urged to keep their garbage and green/kitchen waste bins locked away or secured in bear-resistant containers so bruins aren't lured from the forest to residential streets.

Bears typically dine on plants, berries and bugs but they are natural scavengers that will travel great distances to find food. If this spring is cold and wet and new plant growth is delayed, the bears will be on the move. And hungry.

"This is the best opportunity we have all year to prevent bears from learning bad habits," says Sylvia Dolson, executive director of the Get Bear Smart Society and author of several books about bears.

Dolson said bears come out of the den more wary than when they went in, so early spring is the best time to rid neighbourhoods of bear attractants so the intelligent and adaptable omnivores don't decide to move in until late fall.

Bears that become used to eating garbage become problem bears that have to be shot; last year 13 of them were killed in the Tri-Cities.

There could be dozens in the Tri-Cities this spring so the best way to avoid human conflicts is to keep garbage secured and respect city bylaws that require garbage to be placed on the curb between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m. on garbage day and locked up again in the evening.

Coquitlam's Bear Aware co-ordinator, Drake Stephens, who spent most of last summer and fall trying to convince people living in areas unused to seeing bears to lock up their garbage, said he doesn't want to see another spike in conflicts because of carelessness. Last year was particularly bad across the province because bears' natural food sources were scarce and the creatures were plenty.

But while the winter has been quiet and so far only one complaint has been made this spring, Stephens echoed Dolson's warning about training bears now, saying, "If [bears] get the upper-hand, it will be hard to make the bears wild again."

There may already be some bears around, Stephens said. In Miller Park for example, a bear that was causing trouble and likely denned in the area could be awake and, possibly, looking for garbage already.

And it may end up being the first dead bear of 2011 in the Tri-Cities.

To report a problem (garbage) bear, call 1-877-952-7277.

Fast facts about bears in the Tri-Cities

50 Estimated number of black bears in forests around the Tri-Cities

60% Proportion of houses in central Coquitlam whose occupants left their household garbage unsecured last year

100 km Distance black bears will travel from home den for food

5 km Distance black bears will easily travel in a day

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com

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