It usually takes a combination of two circumstances to create a bear problem in the Rim country.
One the drought conditions we are experiencing right now can't be avoided. But the other providing bears with food, water or shelter can be prevented, said Craig McMullen, a local field supervisor for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
"The bottom line is it's dry out there and we're anticipating that the groceries for the bears aren't going to be there, just like they weren't in 2000 when we had a real dry year," McMullen said. "We're anticipating that the bears are going to come out of their dens hungry."
So far there has been one confirmed black bear sighting and several unconfirmed.
"A maintenance person saw one in a trailer park in Star Valley a couple of days ago," he said. "Everything else has been unconfirmed reports."
Those unconfirmed reports have come from residents in Payson North and in the Pine-Strawberry area.
Bears hibernate during the winter, and many are just now starting to leave their dens.
"Typically the bores start emerging from their dens in late March, followed by the sows and cubs a little later in early April," McMullen said.
He cautions people not to feed the bears.
"It's the same old message, but it really is true," McMullen said. "A fed bear is a dead bear. It's not necessarily intentional feeding. It could be leaving your garbage out on the curb all week where critters can get at it."
Bird feeders also can attract bears, he said.
"Back in 2000, bears were just coming along and knocking off birdfeeders. Bird seed is a good protein, high carbohydrate food. Some people just refill their feeders because they think it's neat to see a bear in town, and that just reinforces the pattern of the bear starting to associate people with food. What they're doing is killing that bear."
Two years ago, officials in the Tonto National Forest area caught 48 bears and had to destroy eight of of them because the bears no longer feared humans.
"You can't relocate those types of bears because really all you're doing is relocating a problem," McMullen said.
The fact that bears are exceptionally intelligent animals also works against them.
"Once they figure out they can get food from people, they will never forget it," McMullen said. "If you feed them, the message is the same if you come to town you can get food."
It's a message that sows will even pass on to their cubs.
"Once bears start associating people with food, we end up frequently having to destroy them," he said.
Rather than see that happen, McMullen suggests people be proactive by trying to keep bears and other wildlife away.
"The remedy for unwanted wildlife conflicts is to remove whatever is attracting that animal," he said. "Put up a fence, drain the water from your bird bath, put your cat food inside. If you're not providing anything the animal wants, it most likely will move on."
Other wildlife frequently encountered in residential areas include javelina and elk.
While encounters with these javelina and elk are more frequent, the ones with bears potentially create the biggest problems. Although a bear will most likely sense your presence and leave the area immediately, McMullen has some specific suggestions in case it doesn't.
"First, gather your pets around you," he said. "A dog may see a bear and decide it wants to chase it. Then, it decides it doesn't, and comes back to the owner with bear in tow."
Another good idea is to look big and not run away. If the bear approaches, shout and act aggressively.
"In the rare event that a bear attacks," he said, "fight back with everything you have at your disposal fists, sticks, rocks."
To report a bear sighting, call Fish and Game at (602) 789-3202 but only if it is engaging in unusual or aggressive behavior.
"If you're on the fringe of town and see a bear just passing through at night, it's probably not a big worry," McMullen said. "I'm talking about something more along the lines of a bear knocking over your garbage can."
The Forest Service has also published a pamphlet called "Be Bear Aware, which is available at the Payson Ranger Station. That same information is available at www.bebearaware.org.
McMullen also wants people to be aware that the Gila County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last summer, making it illegal to feed or attract bears "by intentionally, negligently or recklessly placing water, garbage, refuse, human or animal food, or edibles in a place that is physically accessible to bears."
People who violate the ordinance are subject to fines of not less than $500 or more than $2,500, six months in jail, three years of probation, or any combination thereof."
"We aren't trying to come off as a bunch of jackbooted thugs," McMullen said, "but we want people to recognize that this is serious and if you're contributing to the problem you can be cited."
Special Backcountry Tips
Select a campsite away from berry patches, spawning streams and animal trails.
Place sleeping tents at least 100 yards from food storage and cooking areas.
Keep a flashlight and bear pepper spray readily available.
Store all food, pet/livestock feeds, odorous items and garbage by hanging at least 10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from top and side supports.
Strain food particles from dishwater. Pack everything out. Never bury or burn garbage.
Black bears at a glance
Black bears, the variety that lives in the Rim country, can be found across most of North America. Those that live in the Southwest primarily live in the pine forests and chaparral (brush) zones, and occasionally wander into lower elevations.
Colors: Black, brown, blond or cinnamon.
Size: Adults measure about 3 feet at shoulders and 5 to 6 feet when standing upright.
Weight: Adults weigh 125 to 425 pounds. Males are generally larger than females.
Lifespan: Approximately 20 years for wild bears.
Eyesight: Similar to humans.
Sense of smell: Excellent, can span miles.
Attributes: Very agile, climb trees well, good swimmers, and can run as fast as 35 mph.
Healthy wild black bears rely on berries, insects, vegetation, fish and carrion to survive. They generally mate during May and early June. They hibernate primarily due to lack of food, usually between November and April, though this varies. Healthy mothers produce 1 to 2 cubs every 2 to 3 years.